IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY MORNING . . .
It had been raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock for two days. The monsoon was definitely here and nothing was flying. Even the ducks were walking, as they say. The only good news was that the radios had been silent. Apparently the VC weren't in the mood to take advantage of the fact that every aircraft in the entire delta was on deck because of the weather. I walked into the wardroom from the most recent check with the radio watch in combat and flopped down on the sofa among several det pilots.
"Hey Hanski, looks like we're gonna go through our whole duty day without flying. AGAIN." LTJG Steve Hanvey looked back at me for a moment and resumed watching the movie.
"Yeah. When's it s'pose to break?"
"Weather guesser thinks it will last another two days. We could get rained out day after tomorrow too."
We had the flight duty for a 24-hour stretch every other day, rotating the two crews of our fire team with the two other crews of the det which made up the other fire team; brand X.
"Heck with that, let's go flying. I need the hours to make FTL."
Steve was more than qualified to be a fire team leader, except for one detail; he didn't have 100 hours as an AHAC yet. Since he had come straight out to det, he got more combat time as a copilot than those of us who had done a couple of months at the main Seawolf base at Binh Thuy building up hours while avoiding much combat. You had to have 500 hours to make AHAC (the same OPNAV requirements we still have today) and both he and I had made AHAC with exactly 500. I had made FTL right on the numbers too, with 600.0 hours in my log book. He still needed a few hours to get to 600 but was sure to make FTL at the minimum. Steve was chaffing at the bit to make it. He was a good combat pilot and everybody knew it. I loved having him as my trail aircraft commander. We were a good team.
"Yeah right. You looked outside? Even the seagulls are grounded. Nobody in his right mind will be flying today. It's WOXOF in rain. It's BEEN WOXOF in rain all night and all morning. There's no sign of it letting up."
"Exactly. What do you think the VC are doing today? They sure aren't hitting outposts or ambushing patrol boats."
"If they're smart, they're watching movies like us."
"And if they're REALLY smart, they're taking advantage of the world being grounded to do something we're gonna regret. It isn't often they can operate in daylight without fear of air attack. Why don't we go see if we can find out what they're up to?"
"You're not talking about another walk up to check the radio traffic in C-I-C are you?"
"Let's take out the fire team. Whatever they may be up to they'd never expect to see us show up. I'll bet we might catch them with their black pajamas down around their ankles."
"You know Steve, it makes sense in a perverted way. We're instrument pilots. Let's start acting like it. The army is grounded and the VC know it. Let's show them the difference between Army Air and Navy Air."
This was enough for CDR Charlie Hall, our O-in-C.
"You guys are certifiable, you know that." he said.
"Does that mean "No" Boss?"
"Convince me, Tom." he replied.
"O.K. Boss, we will have the element of surprise. . ."
"That's no lie!" he interjected.
". . and it's not that dangerous."
"Oh NO. Not that dangerous. Just WOXOF and forecast to be the same forever."
"Who cares if its 200 over? The delta's flat as a table top. Nothing sticks up any higher than the trees.
"This from the guy who broke out his chin bubble on a tree branch!" interjected CDR Hall, enjoying himself immensely.
I ignored this shot and continued.
"We've got RAD ALTs, and it's still daylight and we can see enough to navigate low level, and we know the area well enough. We'll RTB with plenty of fuel so we can bingo if it's too bad to find the "T" when it's time to come back, and we can divert to Tra Vinh whatever the weather as long as we get there before dark. It's raining, but it's not storming."
"No chance of a mid air since nobody else will be flying." Steve chimed in hopefully. I looked a pained expression at Steve. That wasn't exactly the most supportive and convincing assurance. He flushed a little. The Boss'es eyes twinkled. With a theatrical scowl, he said:
"O.K. plan a patrol track using good visual references, factor in some extra gravy in your fuel planning, and plan to go to Tra Vinh for a full bag BEFORE you try to get back to the boat. Don't even try for the boat except with a full bag."
I know what he was thinking, and Steve's eyes confirmed that he did too. We were all thinking of the fiasco a few weeks ago which started when LT Max Prudence (a nom de guerre) had cut the fuel too close on a bright sunny day trying to find the "T" under an isolated squall line. One bad decision led to another and Steve ended up getting shot down trying to avoid becoming a guest in the Hanoi Hilton or worse. (See Scramble Seawolves, Parts VII and VIII, Summer and Fall '94) I wouldn't make THAT mistake, of that all those present could be absolutely certain. Charlie Hall knew it.
We reasoned that we should sweep the free fire zones along the coast. At the altitudes we would be flying because of the overcast, we wouldn't be able to get radio comms with the regular clearance authority if we ran into anything that was not in a free fire zone and needed killing, so searching in the free fire zone simplified things. CDR Hall planned to notify province HQ, using the ship's HF, after we already were on station to prevent anybody there getting the word out in time (we always suspected leaks from that headquarters, and never told them any more than absolutely necessary to ensure safety of friendlies.) In this case, he would verify that no ARVN friendlies were operating in the free fire zone and advise us before we went out of VHF line-of-sight comm range of the "T." Our birds didn't have HF radios to communicate over-the-horizon. This was a mere formality considering that there warn't no way the ARVN would be out in this weather.
We brief the rest of the fire team. The crewmen were unfazed by our plans to launch. Their trust was unshakable. LTJG Terry Tomlinson, Steve's copilot, and the new pilot on det, was clearly jazzed. If he was concerned about the weather, he didn't let on. His eyes said this was gonna be cool. He was less than 30 hours flight time in country, and would have no huge responsibilities other than his guns. He would perform navigation for his own training, as usual, but only as backup. The real nav responsibilities belonged to LTJG Tom Cleverdon, my copilot in the lead ship of the fire team. Cleverdon, who had been shot down with Steve, and in whose lap the tree branches had come to rest when we had had our little "midair," is the strong silent type. He was silent now. His eyes did the talking. They were amused as they reviewed the track plan and the operating plans. Since I too, was a LTJG, we were an all-Jaygee fire team; what Charlie Hall called his secret weapon. We were also an all-Naval Academy fire team, all class of "69." Wait till Shipmate Magazine hears about this!
At the hatch leading to the flight deck, we pause and look out at the scene. The view out the hatch is low black-grey overcast, with grey tendrils hanging down everywhere. The sea is dark grey and covered with whitecaps. There is no horizon and we can't see the coast a mile away. No sign of sunlight anywhere. It is only day because it isn't technically night. The birds, normally mottled and sun-faded, are shiny black-green. The pilot doors are installed for the first time since I've been on det. The rain is coming down in buckets. Can't see any sign of a break so we man up. We couldn't have gotten wetter running to the birds if the damage control party had knocked us down with streams from their fire hoses.
As soon as we get strapped in, the rain subsides. Nature's sense of humor at work. Just shows how hard it's raining that we can't see it clearing off until suddenly it's clear. Another black wall is approaching. Might as well make the takeoff before the next squall hits. The launch is uneventful. We lift and move forward off the flight deck and out over the water horizontally since we can't climb out without going into the overcast. Better to stay below it in mere deluge.
We have the sea to ourselves. The normal sprinkle of fishing boats usually present are absent. At home with Mama-san like sane people, no doubt. We steer for the mouth of a moderate size bay, our first navaid check point. If anybody is running the Market Time blockade, it's a likely place to put in.
"Permission to test the guns, Sir." asks Red Elder, my first gunner, who is manning the .50-cal gun in the right door. Red is a little feisty runt with bright red hair. Tougher than a man his size should be, he's an RCA cowboy whose specialty is bull riding. True to his calling, Red the smallest gunner on the det prefers the aviation .50-cal, the heaviest gun to manhandle around in the slipstream of the helicopter door. The .50 spews a short burst and I follow the tracers as the first hits the water. A half dozen splashes scatter near each other and then the next thirty pour down the same hole churning the water to froth. Pinpoint, as usual. I can hear AEAN Barry Solomon, my other gunner, fire a burst of 7.62 from his M-60 in the left door. A Jewish kid, with oily skin, and an acne problem that the heat and humidity exacerbate, he is a door gunner virtuoso despite his John Lennon round glasses. He regularly knocks sea gulls out of the sky with one-second bursts. If the bird isn't hit by the fourth tracer, he lets it go. Not many get away unscathed.
"Good afternoon Seawolves." came a voice over the FM radio. Intelligible English, but with a Vietnamese sing-song twang.
Silence at our end. Something funny here.
"Seawolves, where you go?"
Then it dawns on me; it's the go'dam VC! Unbelievable.
"Seawolves, what you doing?" he persisted.
"Looking for you, Charlie. Hey, Charlie, pop a smoke, we don't have your position."
"No can do, Seawolves."
"O.K. Charlie, how about a long count then?"
"No can do, no can do. Seawolves, today you DIE."
"Don't think so, Charlie, not today. Break, 99 starboard parade. Now."
"Click, click." Two static breaks are a roger from Seawolf 99.
When 99 tucked in, I gave him hand signals for a new frequency. Thumbs up to roger, and he floated away, back into trail. Tactical trail is normally a 100 feet up and a 1000 feet back, but at this low level in this poor visibility, he's level and only about 500 feet back.
"We're up." came 99's laconic check-in on UHF. Double click reply. Let those bastards find us now. They might have the province chief's operational freq, but they'll never keep up with us on tactical. He's probably searching the FM band now.
"Wow, Tom, just like the movies. I never would have believed it if I hadn't heard it myself."
"Yeah, I know, me too."
"For all we know, the bastard is at province headquarters."
"I don't think so, they're somewhere along the coast where they can see the "T" so they know when we launch. They may know when we're up, but they still don't know where we're going until we get there."
"Hell, Tom, WE don't even know where we're going."
"Good point, Cleaver."
We pressed on and swept into the bay at low level. Nothing happening here. Crossing the bay, we continue ahead "feet dry" (meaning we went from over water to over land, such as it was). Feet dry here, even without the torrential rain was a second growth mangrove swamp laced with creeks and sloughs. We parallel the largest creek emptying into the bay, cris-crossing from bank to bank to get a look under the overhang. With our altitude and the rain, our approach to anyone would be muffled until the very last minute. Hanvey closes up more than normal for tree dodging low level because of the rain. He takes a distant left echelon, on the bearing for a parade position but much more loose so he could concentrate on the terrain more than the leader. We worked our way up the coast from inlet to inlet, over the mangrove. We passed out of the free fire zone, according to my copilot-navigator.
"Nine-nine, I hold us out of the free fire zone. Guns tight unless fired upon, over."
"Roger, Nine-eight, concur."
The next little bay up ahead was shaped like a golf club head with the shaft opening to the sea and the bay shielded from ocean view by the sharp turn from shaft to club face. It was easy to observe and defend the bay at the narrow entrance should some patrol craft get too nosy. We approached the little bay from overland at an altitude of 30 feet, bursting into the bay at the heel of the club face heading along the length of the bay parallel to the sea.
There in the middle of the little bay was a large ocean-going junk, surrounded by a dozen or so sampans, canoes, and other little water craft. The junk was lit up with floodlights in the rainy dusk. It was swarming with people, as were the small craft. The junk was at my right front and inside my radius of turn for my 90 knot speed, so I continued past them. As I roared by them, people were running everywhere on the junk, and some in the sampans alongside took to the water, right over the side, fully expecting us to deliver a hail of gunfire, but no one shot at us. I think they were so surprised, they couldn't change from stevedores to soldiers before we were past them. I set up a circle around the boats, out of their small arms range, and got on the radio to the province chief for clearance, since they were out of the free fire zone, but clearly engaged in smuggling supplies in from the sea.
"Trader Jackpot Delta, Seawolf Niner-eight, over." I hope we are close enough, cause I sure don't want to climb into this shit to get comms.
"Nine-nine, hold your altitude, I'm climbing to get comms." I turn tail to the targets and start a climb. At 500 feet, 300 feet into the goo, they finally answered.
"This is Trader Jackpot Delta, roger over."
"Delta, this is Seawolf Niner-eight, I have a seagoing junk being unloaded by a dozen sampans at coordinates Xray Romeo eight two niner zero. Request weapons free, over."
"Seawolf niner-eight, wait out."
"Niner-eight, roger, be advised that these guys are in the process of di di mau-ing (running away, fast). Request expedite clearance, over."
Interminable, it seemed.
"Seawolf Niner-eight, this is Trader Jackpot Delta, over."
Thank God, that didn't take so long!
"Seawolf Niner-eight, go ahead."
"Seawolf Niner-eight, permission denied. I say again, permision denied. There are friendly forces on patrol in that general area, over."
Yeah, right. ARVN out in this shit? That'l be the day, Pilgrim.
"This is Seawolf Niner-eight, copy permission denied. Is that charlie, over?"
"Seawolf, readback is correct. Do not fire unless fired upon, over."
"This is Niner-eight, what are the coordinates of the nearest friendlies, over."
"Coordinates are unavailable, Seawolf."
"Niner-eight, roger, understand do not fire unless fired upon."
"Seawolf, that is correct, Out."
"Nine-nine, I'm descending."
I spiraled back down through the overcast and broke out into the rain, immediately leveling off to stay above Nine-nine's altitude until we could spot him. By climbing on course outbound from the target to get comms and spiraling back down when completed talking to province headquarters, I should be away from the junk and sampans, not right over them. All eyes are scanning for Nine-nine.
"There he is Mr. P, three o'clock low, heading the other way." reported Elder.
"Right behind you, Nine-nine. Join on me."
Nine-nine turned right and came around to rendezvous on my starboard quarter as I held a slight left turn for him.
"Nine-nine, in trail."
"Roger, Nine-nine, let's go get shot at."
I turned inbound to the junk. The sampans were scattering like quail and the leaders were nearing the foliage.
"O.K. everybody, don't fire unless fired upon, understand?" Elder, Solomon, and Cleverdon rogered.
"Nine-nine, we're still weapons tight unless fired upon, copy?
"Roger that, Nine-eight."
"Gunner's, if we take fire, shoot for the sampans heading for the beach, Tom you take the Junk." Again, three rogers.
I reached down and reset the rocket system intervalometer from single pod to both pods. The effect of this move is to make both rocket pods fire when I pressed the rocket firing button, instead of one pod. Not only does this double the number of rockets flying per push of the rocket-firing button on the cyclic, it starts using the second pod, which is loaded with proximity fuse warheads. This target called for prox fuses. Lots of them. We charged right for them, right on the deck. Have no choice. The overcast prevents us from climbing to a safer altitude from which we would normally have made short work of such a gaggle of vulnerable boats in the middle of such a big bay. We would prefer either a shallow glide-dive from 1000 feet for a rocket run, or a circle around a target area at 1000 feet (above the most significant danger from small arms coming back at us) if it was work for guns only. If we were on the deck at this altitude, we were almost always right on the tree tops, which blocked visibility of enemy on the ground, and gave the enemy only a quick burst as we passed near them. It also limited our own visibility of the enemy, and made it almost impossible to catch sight of them in time to use rockets, so I had very little experience firing rockets at this altitude. That didn't bother me since, at this altitude, I relied on our guns and speed. Coming in over a big expanse of water was a distinctly naked and very uncomfortable feeling. They had a great field of fire. Looks like a fair fight coming up real soon. And, if you've read any of the previous installments of "Scramble Seawolves," you know how much I hate a fair fight. Somebody must have decided we were attacking, because Cleverdon, Elder, and I all saw automatic weapon muzzle flashes as someone on the junk let fly a burst of automatic rifle fire.
"Taking fire!" We all three stepped on one another calling it out.
Red Elder instantly opened up, followed by Solomon, then Cleverdon.
I quickly "guestimated" the range with this abnormal sight picture, squeezed off a pair of rockets, and watched them go. Two white-orange dots marked the motors before they burned out. I tried to concentrate on where they were going in order to adjust the next ones. The prox fuse went off first in a dirty grey air burst, which churned into white spray the surface of the bay, short of the junk. The point det rocket went right over the junk and splashed beyond. Two rockets from Hanvey pass up my starboard side about 50 feet away and level, and detonate among the boats. He is in trail on my right rear so he can shoot at the biggest junk and cover me, knowing that I will break left to keep my best gun on target as I pull away.
A "guestimate" adjustment, and two more of mine are away. Too close to shoot any more rockets this pass, and "too close" is no place to be at low altitude. Time to take steps to follow Rule One - NEVER overfly the target.
"Coming left!" I shouted over the radio, banking away from the fire while letting my right gunner have a clear shot without the rotors getting in the way. As I look away to take care of the low turn, in my peripheral vision, I catch a blizzard of geysers as Hanvey's guns cross-stitch with Red's. My two rockets arrived, with the prox fuse going off right over the junk's well deck, and the point det entering the bulkhead of the after superstructure. Brown smoke bursts out the windows and the door. There are now numerous muzzle flashes as the VC battle back. As I continue my hard turn away, both Red and Solomon are now firing aft. Red is standing with his weight on his left foot on the cargo door edge, his right foot having no purchase on the steeply sloping floor of the cabin because of the angle of bank. He hangs on to the ammo box with his left hand, while his right reaches over his shoulder to the butterfly grip of the .50. His .50-cal gun is almost above his head as he keeps it on the target drawing aft as the turn continues. As the target continues to draw aft and the bank is held, he pulls himself up until his head and shoulders are out the door to keep sight of the targets behind us. His fire is going back almost parallel to the tail boom.
Solomon, the left door gunner, is standing down on the left skid, tied to the helicopter by his sissy belt (gunner's belt). He's bending down to bring his free-gun M-60 to bear, firing under the tail boom toward the five o'clock direction where the target lies. He watches the tracers to adjust fire on target rather than line up his eyes along the barrel.
|Using his machine gun "free gun" means the machine gun is not attached to a gun mount. It is held with both hands by the gunner who is "free" to swing the gun where he desires. The M-60's are specially modified by our gunners to allow them to do this. The bipod and fore stock are removed and a dummy pistol grip is wired to the barrel and gas piston sticking out horizontally. (To the right for the left gunner's gun when the gun is held upright. To the left for the right gunner's gun.) The left gunner holds the gun rotated clockwise 90 so the dummy grip is pointed down and the real pistol grip with the trigger is sticking out to the left. The gunner grasps the forestock pistol grip with his left hand and grasps the rear pistol grip, the one with the trigger, with his right. The right hand holds the grip with the pinky finger through the trigger guard to squeeze the trigger. With the gun held this way, he can hold the machine gun down at arms length, and swing it aft to aim under the tail boom and still pull the trigger.|
Cleverdon has no targets for his gun on this outbound heading, so I know without looking that he's backing me up on the instruments, especially the altimeter, whose low altitude warning light stares in mute disapproval of our flight regime.
"Coming right!" I call on the radio. Solomon ceases fire as the rotating fuselage blocks his gun target line. He climbs back into the cabin, getting a boost from the right rolling helicopter. As the angle of bank increases, Red also ceases fire because of the rotor blades dipping into his field of fire. I'm confident that Hanvey is closing me from my right in a sort of running rendezvous after delivering his covering fire as I broke left. From his more distant position in trail, he should be able to easily keep his right door gun on target as he follows me outbound from the target area. His right gunner saturates the target as my tight turn to head back in to the target area masks my own guns. I glance up and right, over my shoulder, as the nose pulls across the tree-line horizon. There he is, a steady stream of tracers pouring from the door-mounted mini-gun in his his right door. Once I am almost around to the inbound heading, I ease the turn so the rotor disk rises and Red, my right gunner, can resume firing. As soon as Red opens fire again, Hanvey wraps it up, masking his own guns as he swings into a tactical trail. Just like clockwork. Looked easy, but that little precision timing for mutual fire support with at least one gun able to fire at any moment, was the result of many hours of teamwork. It's what makes us good. Hours and hours of working together, talking together, thinking as one, anticipating each other.
We start our second run in. I felt like Ward Bond leading the Texas Rangers through the Noyecki Commanche camp in John Ford's classic western, "The Searchers." But instead of telling the young Cavalry Second Lieutenant to "watch that knife, boy" I wanted to tell LTJG Hanvey to watch those rockets.
The junk does not seem to be trying to get under way, so I elect to hold fire with the rockets and concentrate on presenting the guns with good targets. I angle left heading between the junk and the shore, leaving the junk on my right. Elder shoots across it's bow at a fleeing sampan, and Solomon takes another under concentrated fire which has almost gotten to the overhanging trees on our left. Cleverdon lays a three-second mini-gun burst on another little sampan right off our nose since his flex-gun would not bear on the junk to our right on my new heading. As soon as the automatic cutout breaks the stream of rounds out of the gatling gun, he depresses the trigger again to begin another three-second burst as we close the sampan. His canoe-sized sampan target literally disappears in white froth which spatters our windscreen as we race by.
Nobody's talking, ICS or radio. Nothing needs to be said. Each shooter in my helicopter works his assigned sector, adjusting as I weave through the boats in a roaring dash. Hanvey maneuvers to cover me and keep his guns bearing. As we reach abeam the big junk, big chunks of its foc'sle spew into the air amidst a grey-black jet of smoke as one of Hanvey's rockets drives home. The muted WHUMP is audible over the cacophony of two door guns chattering and the three-second r-r-r-r-r-i-i-i-p-p of Cleverdon's flex mini-gun. I hold the outbound heading for a long 10 seconds, calling for a left turn this time.
We complete the one-eighty and I lead the fire team back, this time to the right of target area, so that Cleverdon's flex mini-gun can sweep the entire scene. With Hanvey in trail, two mini-guns and two M-60's are brought to bear on the target area to our left front. Only a couple of sampans are still upright and moving. Several others are DIW with no one aboard. Dozens of heads are bobbing in the water all over the place, many splashing desperately for shore. As I scan across the cockpit in a gentle left turn, I see muzzle flashes from the junk. Somebody still putting up a fight from there. The junk is immediately smothered amidst a forest of geysers as Hanvey's guns suppress the fire. From the junk, pieces of wood flying off are visible (or imagined subliminally?), and a small red-black fireball mushroom rises as it's fuel tank or engine goes up. There is no more return fire.
"Get the last of the boats, Solly. Tom, take the swimmers."
It sounds cruel to put it like this. As Navy men, we are taught that the enemy is no longer the enemy when his ship is sunk. He is now a shipwrecked sailor, and, with the exception of Japanese sailors who would refuse to accept offers of help, history demonstrates that you aid your enemy if you can. The British Navy stopped in submarine-infested waters and rescued survivors of the Bismarck, until a fresh submarine scare forced them to get underway. But this is not the open ocean, where sailors will surely die if not rendered succor by their victors. We can't pick them up and capture them. These men can easily swim the short distance to the swamp edge. If they reach shore they will escape into the mangroves to fight another day. A shipmate, countryman, or an ally will die on another day if we don't finish them.
Solomon sinks a sampan while Cleverdon strafes the men nearest the shoreline.
"Slowing down, Nine-nine. Get the swimmers."
I tighten the radius of the circle as the decreasing airspeed allows, without dipping the rotor tips into the path of the rounds going out. We spiral in gently towards the junk, churning every collection of flotsam to debris, ripping every swamped sampan to shreds, and shooting every body in sight, head up or head down, at close range. Two of the abandoned sampans blow up in greasy black-grey gushes, explaining why they had been so hastily forsaken by their occupants. The concussions buffet the helicopter and are audible because they are so close. We end up in a near air-taxi with nothing left to shoot except the big junk. In spite of all the ordnance which it had absorbed, and despite the gasoline explosion, the junk was not on fire. A pass close aboard showed no bodies on deck in the open. Since we had taken a lot of fire from the junk, that meant that someone must still be alive there, and that precluded putting a crewman aboard to search for documents or scuttle it. We were not going to give anybody aboard an even chance for some retribution, not when we had scored such a lopsided victory. Instead, we opened out and turned back in to try to sink it with our remaining rockets. The low overcast prevented us from getting a good angle and the two-dart salvos make their ballistic flight less predictable than normal. When firing pairs, both rockets, being launched at the same time, are flying in close proximity to each other, and can screw each other up if (frequently) one is slightly ahead of the other; its wake throws off the other as they converge when nearing boresight range. (Another reason we don't like to fire pairs, except under special circumstances). Only half of these rockets available to fire at the junk were point-det fused. The prox fuses weren't going to sink it, and the point det fuses seemed to have no salutary effect. Of the sixteen or so rockets remaining between us, we only managed to get hits with about five of the point-det warheads. There must not have been anything explosive left on board to be set off to help the rocket warheads demolition, and it wouldn't burn, probably because of a combination of the rainy conditions and the apparent absence of flammables on board. To make matters worse, while the warhead explosions tore holes in the sides, deck, and superstructure, they wouldn't penetrate before going off, and we didn't get any hits along the waterline, so no great progress was made toward sinking the junk. All that buoyant wood held together against the warheads, which proves the old axiom that you can sink ships easier by letting water in the bottom than by letting air in the top. We needed to open some holes and let the water in.
We chunked in the few willy pete M-79 rounds we had, but even those didn't start satisfactory fires. We hosed down the waterline with .50-cal, our biggest rounds, and punched some holes, but not enough. The junk was far sturdier and of more resilient construction than the fragile sampans and canoes.
"Nine-nine, Nine-eight, any ideas?"
"None, unless you want to board it, and I don't recommend that."
"Concur. Say your state."
"Call it bingo right now, given this weather."
"Roger, let's go get some willy pete at Tra Vinh."
We refueled and rearmed at Tra Vinh, and checked the birds for battle damage. We took no hits. All that fire and no hits. That's what door gunners are all about. There is no doubt in my mind that even the VC, notoriously poor shots that they were, with careful aim, and plenty of time, if not distracted, couldn't help but hit a low, fat, relatively slow (don't kid yourself about 120 knots being fast and elusive), target which we presented that day. Not until you factor in not less than 5,000 rounds per minute, and as much as 13,000 rounds per minute, of distraction. Visualize being seated in sampans, or exposed on the deck of the junk while, two, four, or six guns fire at you without ceasing, sometimes in crossfire. Stand up and take careful aim if you dare. We returned to find the junk aground on a mud bank near shore and no one in sight. More rockets, even the willy pete (white phosphorous) failed to set the junk afire. So we broke off, topped off at Tra Vinh, and went looking for the LST with enough time to allow for Murphy's Law to do it's worst before dark.
Return to the LST was uneventful. Flying compass bearing off a well-known shoreline feature brought us to within sight of the "T" getting a tally at less than a quarter mile. Then it was merely another low vis approach over the restless sea, in the rain, under a low overcast, in the fading light, to a postage stamp deck, without any navaids, in a single engine helicopter.
A VN Navy patrol ventured into the bay the next day and inspected the very waterlogged junk where it had been beached. Apparently we had done enough damage to sink her after all. It had been cleaned out of all undamaged and usable supplies and there were no bodies aboard; proof that we hadn't made a clean sweep of all the VC in the area. Oh well.
How did I sleep that night knowing we had shot all those men (and women?) helpless in the water? Slept like a baby. Do I ever have nightmares or regrets about that fight? Not at all. I have regrets about that battalion of NVA we caught in the open up on the Cambodian border during the Tet cease-fire, who had the discipline NOT to be provoked into firing on us, even though we nearly knocked their heads off with our skids trying to get them to shoot at us. If they had, it would have been the same for them as it was for these, except they would have been blasted under the sea of grass, like these VC were blasted under the sea. If they had, Americans wouldn't have died in the upper Delta fighting them later. But we obeyed the rules. Both times. I want to thank the VC whose appalling poor discipline and judgement, allowed us to slaughter him and dozens of his comrades. There was not another significant engagement in that local area during the rest of my tour of duty, or in the tours of my det mates who remained there after I went home to the land of the big PX and round-eyed women.
Copyright © 1997,1998,2002 Tom Phillips