Scramble Seawolves! Part 3

Larry Bradshaw

by Tom Phillips, Seawolf 98 | Reprinted with permission

This is part 3 leading up to 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.

If you missed the earlier installments of this story, you might want to go back and read them first. Much of the background, technical detail, and references in the following story is explained in those articles which are prologue to this one.

Flight Gear
We flew in the standard Navy zoom bag. That visually separated us from the Army pilots who had the two piece flight suits. On first seeing the Army suits we wanted them. They seemed like a good idea. You could remove the top and wear the pants between flights, therefore being a little more comfortable without having to change out of flight gear completely. Some guys got them but quickly discarded them. They smelled worse than the Navy flight suit when sweaty, and worse than that, people mistook you for an Army pilot. We quickly developed a strong preference for being identified as NAVY pilots. A combination of a lot of things built up an incredibly strong esprit de corps in the Seawolves and in the riverine Navy in general. At the same time we soon developed a general attitude of superiority over things Army, except their supply system. They did not lack for stuff in the Delta.

Under the flight suit we wore cotton washed-khaki trousers cut off into shorts, and Army-issue olive drab green skivvie shirts. The shirts, washed in the river with everything else, quickly faded to a color somewhere between pale tan-green and light brown, while the shorts faded to an off dinge. Flight boots featured zippers laced in to speed donning. When not flying, the zoom bag came off and we wore the shorts-tee-shirt-flight boots combo. That way, if we scrambled, it was a simple matter to jump in the bag, grab your personal survival gear, zip the boots, and run like hell for the bird. Jungle fatigues, never called anything except "cami's" were reserved for non-alert days if we needed to dress up.

My survival gear centered on a .45, in a shoulder holster with spare clips hung on the chest strap. The strap also hung a World War II K-bar abandon ship knife. The K-bar belonged to my father. It was infinitely superior to the standard-issue Navy survival knife because it held a razor-sharp edge. In survival school it chopped shelter poles and still could cut paper. The standard issue Navy aviator's survival knife on the other hand, could cut paper once and was then only good as a letter opener until you sharpened it again. When on alert, we slept in the clothes we flew in. Took a while to get used to sleeping with socks on, but I could never get used to wearing flight boots without socks as some of the guys did (shades of the Foreign Legion, they don't wear socks either, and we felt like a foreign legion at this stage of the war... how appropriate), Taking the extra time to put on the socks if there was a scramble was considered extravagant.

SEAL DRESS CODE
At least we all wore skivvie shorts, if not socks. That's more than you could say for the SEALs. They wore none, which is, of course, their business, one would think. Live and let live, I always say, especially to a SEAL, most especially to a DRUNK SEAL. When they had had a few drinks, they took great pleasure in protecting the purity of their dress code by holding a skivvie check. First they would prove to all present that they were not guilty of wearing any skivvie shorts, by simply dropping trou in unison. Next they would demand that all present prove in a like manner that they too were not guilty of violating the sartorial standards to which the SEALs held themselves. Woe be to any present found guilty of insulting the suddenly imposed dress code. The guilty party was quickly cleansed of the offending item of clothing by the simple expedient of having them forcibly removed OVER the head of the wearer, an industrial strength wedgie! Fortunately, the seams of all river-washed laundry rapidly lost its stateside strength, so no serious damage was ever done in the process, except to the skivvies, of course.

"Tactical" Lesson: Never wear skivvie shorts when out drinking with SEALs.

Second Lesson: Drink with the SEALs whenever you can. They are good to have as friends.

SEAL Club Etiquette
Whenever in Binh Thuy, the home base, located in "civilization", we would often go over to the Army Engineers club adjacent to the Third Surgical Hospital, which was right next to the Navy facility at Binh Thuy. It was a much more attractive club than the Navy Quonset hut, as one would expect of a rear area engineer unit. It also had the added attraction of being near the Army Nurses BOQ. Therefore, Army nurses, round-eyed women, AMERICAN WOMEN, could often be found there.

We would go over there and sit around and wheeze, and drool, and make efforts to snake the nurses from the unworthy clutches of the engineer officers, and other assorted Army REMFs who frequented the club for unknown, but probably selfish, reasons. We, on the other hand, were only interested in saving the nurses from suffering an unfortunate fate by associating with non-warriors. We had a high success rate, after all what discerning woman would prefer a REMF Army poague over a red-blooded Naval Aviator wreathed in gunsmoke?

One night, about eight of us, one jeepload, (half were SEALs), were at the club, and actually being quiet, and reasonably well-behaved. A large inebriated Army officer took exception to one of our Seawolf pilots quietly engaging a nurse in erudite, probably theological, conversation. This guy must have been right at the minimum in all categories for acceptance in the armed forces. One of our smaller pilots, he looked like his Mommy would be mad at him if she knew he was in the service. The Army guy towered over the Navy guy and was proceeding to intimidate him with abusive language and shoves, to which the little Navy guy was offering no physical rebuttal, having about a one hundred pound weight disadvantage. Everyone was watching the interchange, seven of us and 40 of "them".

One of the SEALs from our little group stepped over to the bar and intervened in the discussion, only to be brushed aside by the Army guy. Diplomacy having had its moment and failed, the SEAL laid out the Army officer with one punch. The guy was out cold before he hit the deck. Just like in the movies.

There was stunned silence. The SEAL exclaimed; F___ing Army puke!", very clearly in the deathly silence for all to hear. Our table of "good" guys, tensed. Us three Seawolves hearts were stopped. I was scoping the exits and trying to figure out how we would unchain the jeep and execute a scramble takeoff after a flying withdrawal in the face of obviously overwhelming odds. The SEALs were NOT scoping the exits with flight in mind. I swear they were checking the exits trying to figure out how THEY could cut off the retreat of the 40 Army guys, and also get to the two guys who were isolated from us across the room at the bar. It didn't look good.

The SEAL at the bar broke the silence again by saying in a slow, loud, menacing voice: "Nobody messes with Seawolves, while SEALs are in the bar". He scanned the crowd. Gulp. So much for retreat. Honor was at stake. Damn. I hate that. We were about to do a little involuntary male bonding with our fellow naval officers.

Nobody moved. And then, one by one, they all turned to their drinks, and the conversation began to swell. People went up to the bar, stepping over the prostrate body, ordered drinks, and returned as if the guy on the floor was a bearskin rug. Nobody even checked on him to see if he was alive. In about fifteen minutes, he came to, got up, looked around, spotted us. We nodded, he left. We held a skivvie check. The nurses loved them.

Other than personal weapons, we carried no other survival gear except a PRC-90 survival radio, pencil flares, and a signal mirror in a leg pocket. If we went down, we either got picked up by our own guys, or we expected to be killed. The VC had a price on our heads; $5000 dead or alive; a left-handed compliment to the Seawolves. There was no hope of evasion in country like the Delta with all that swamp and rice paddy terrain. We did wear flotation LPU's. After all, there were all those waterways, sometimes they were the only option to going into the trees in the uncultivated areas should we be forced to put the aircraft down because of malfunction or battle damage. Besides, there was the takeoff to swim away from if it went poorly, and the Bassac River was wide with a strong current. Since we had foregone the SV-2, the riggers sewed D-rings on the chests of the flight suits, and straps at the belly, so the LPU could be attached. The LPU was stored in the aircraft, arranged over the back of the pilot's seat. The pilot jumped in to the seat, reached up to hook the neck hooks to the D-rings and then hooked the waist together through the straps while seated.

The Scene
My detachment, Det Nine, was assigned to the USS YRBM-21, anchored in the Bassac River off the town of Tan Chou, right at the Cambodian border. From this location we were responsible for the Plain of Reeds Area of Operations (AO), essentially the grasslands and canals running along the border to the east and the mangrove swamps at the eastern end of the AO surrounding the riverine-Army support base at Moc Hoa. It stretched from the Cambodian border down beyond the Grand Canal, which ran east-west from the Bassac River to Saigon. The AO was about forty miles across from the Bassac River to Moc Hoa. The two helos of the det fit on the "roof" of the YRBM. The YRBM was the base for U.S., Vietnamese, and Cambodian Navy patrol boats which operated in Cambodia and along the border.

The next nearest det was Det Five, at the Navy support base at Chau Doc, about twelve miles to the west on the bank of the Mekong River. Their AO included the border to the west and the three hills known as the Three Sisters, including Nui Gia and Nui Koto mountains. To the east, Det Four flew out of Ben Luc and covered the area from Moc Hoa to Saigon. The Plain of Reeds was a prime supply and infiltration route from the terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia, down into the havens of the mangrove swamps of the southern Delta. The area was sparsely populated with farmers, sprinkled along the canals whenever there was some dry land.

There were Ruff Puff outposts scattered all around the AOs at canal intersections, swamp edges, near villages, and so forth. They were usually small triangular forts, surrounded with plenty of barbed wire and mines. The fort had fighting bunkers at each apex and distributed along the walls, an ammo bunker in the center, a comm bunker/command bunker also near the center, a watch tower or two, and various "living quarters" huts inside along the walls. Since the troops were locals, the fort usually held families, farm animals, etc. and often featured laundry on the wire just inside of the minefield. There was usually a large "fire arrow" at the center of the fort, made up of a horizontal arrow pivoting on a nail at the top of a post. On the arrow was distributed cans of flammable stuff which could be lit, forming a flaming arrow which would point out the direction of the enemy to aircraft over the fort.

Hoa Binh was such an outpost, situated at the junction of a small canal which teed into the Nowhere Canal at right angles. The Nowhere Canal ran from the Grand Canal, up to the northwest toward the Cambodian border across the Plain of Reeds. It stopped in the middle of nowhere (hence the name), when somebody apparently ran out of money once upon a time. Had it continued, it would have intercepted the Bassac River up near the Cambodian border. It was the scene of the fire fight which is the central episode of this series of stories.

YRBM Ops
Flying from the YRBM was an adventure. It was anchored in the stream and always was aligned with the considerable current of this great river. As a result, the winds for takeoff, usually too light to be of any real help anyway, were seldom from a desirable direction, and sometimes from astern. The flight deck was about thirty feet above the water. It was as long as the helicopter. In other words, to pass from one side of the helo to the other, you went under the tail boom, or walked in the nets around the nose pitot tube.

The takeoff, almost every one, was enough to make any safety officer cry. The engine was put to max beep and the helo lifted into a six INCH hover. It was usually topped and the rotor RPM was on the verge of drooping. The pilot checked power. If it was over topping, the helo would be landed and rockets removed to lighten it. Remember, they were considered the least effective weapon. When power was within "limits", a tenth of a percent of Ng available, the pilot backed the helo up until the skid heels were at the rear edge of the flight deck.

From there the helo was started forward, sometimes kissing the deck as it "fell off the bubble". As the aircraft went over the edge of the deck, the pilot would push forward cyclic to raise the tail boom and reduce the chance of hitting the deck with the tail rotor. This also started the helo down towards the water and back into ground effect. He lowered the collective to build rotor RPM and commenced a slight right turn to (theoretically) reduce the requirement for tail rotor power, thus making that power available to the main rotor system. (We never really knew for sure if the right turn was of any real value, but we always did it. If nothing else it was therapeutic for the pilots). As the water rose up, he leveled the nose and pulled collective to stop the rate of descent at about five feet or less. He drooped to 92 percent rotor RPM. The diving maneuver combined to get some forward motion towards translational lift, to regain Rotor RPM to be used for "the pull", (the power application to stop the descent), to put the helo down into ground effect to increase lift, and to reduce the drain of power being diverted from the main rotor for tail rotor requirements.

If all went as expected, we lumbered off across the water gaining airspeed and rotor speed slowly until we reached sixty knots, the bottom of the power curve. Then we could climb. Normally we stayed on the deck, accelerating to about eighty knots. The idea was to attain this flight regime before we reached the bank of the river, because the banks were dikes to control flooding and were as much as twenty feet in height, varying with the river level. As we reached the dike the pilot would commence a cyclic climb to clear it. The cyclic climb was the preferred way to clear the dike because it retained, or even built rotor RPM, at the expense of a little speed. Should we be fired on, we would need the rotor RPM to maneuver. If we had just used it to climb, we would be even more of a sitting duck than we were already. We usually picked a spot on the bank that would allow us to pass between huts, which were strewn along the high ground of the dike. That way we didn't have to climb as high right away. The little VN kids living on the dikes loved it. They danced and waved. It's a good thing they didn't throw rocks! One good rock would have brought us down. We varied the crossing point each time we took off.

The gunners straddled their ammo boxes (which doubled as seats), not strapped in during takeoff. That was the only way they could reach the rocket pods manual jettison pull rings which were outside the doors. The rocket pods represented the greatest single weight item should it be advisable to lighten the helo to avoid going into the water. They held their M-60's and their chicken plates in their laps. If, in their opinion, the takeoff was in trouble, they were to pull the rocket pod jettison ring and jump out, taking their gun and chicken plate with them, and hopefully, dragging the ammo can out with their leg. The idea was to lighten the aircraft and keep it from going in the water. I know what you're thinking! This guy is putting me on! Well, it is the truth, I swear. Crewmen actually did jump, but we never lost an aircraft on takeoff. It was considered a matter of pride and pilot skill that your crew never jumped. Mine never did. The helicopter usually flew without pilots doors in order to save weight, weather permitting.

Runway Ops
Once done with the initial sortie from the YRBM, we would usually go to one of the nearby airstrips maintained by the Army supply system and guarded by the local Ruff Puffs. There we would reload ordnance expended and refuel before continuing the mission or returning to the boat. It was usually a hot rearm. The fuel was alongside the ordnance for one-stop shopping. If there was no particular hurry tactically, the pilot would remain at the controls while the copilot and gunners got out to take care of business. The senior gunner usually handled the fueling while the other gunner broke out gun ammunition for the mini-gun, the right-door gun and the left-door M-60. The copilot humped rockets, screwed in the fuses, drove them home in the rocket tube from behind, set the contact pin (which passed the electrical current into the primer cap which ignited the rocket motor), reset the intervelometers on the rocket pods (which determined the sequence of firing when the pilot pressed the firing button on the cyclic), and took a quick leak, as required.

If the tactical situation was hot, the pilot would slow the rotors to flight idle, and get out to help, leaving no one on the controls. If it was really gusty, he would stay on the controls. Risky? Of course. But a hot tactical situation means that somewhere close by, some good guys were getting shot at, and possibly getting shot up. Time was everything, and a possible risk from the rotors was acceptable compared to unnecessary delay. The rearm and refuel was a quick evolution, the limiting factor usually being the fueling.

Because there was a runway to use for takeoff, the helo was topped off, doubling our flight time to 1.3 hours, compared to the fuel load when launching from the boat. We also took a full load of 14 rockets instead of a"boatload" of 8. This created some interesting gross weight vs. power situations on hot days and nights.

In short, the helo wouldn't hover.

No problem, however, because we could execute a running takeoff using the runway. Well not exactly "running", it was more of a sliding takeoff. Once positioned on the runway, the helo was started forward sliding on the skids until it achieved translational lift and was able to lift off the runway to an altitude of a few feet, in ground effect, where it would continue to accelerate in a game of chicken with the field boundary barbed wire concertina. Usually the concertina was the only obstacle because the airstrips were sited in the wide open spaces, created by piling up the mud from the surrounding rice paddies until the runway was above water level during the rainy season.

It was kinda fun once you got used to the smell of burning skid shoes as the friction scraped the metal shoes down to nothing. We went through a lot of skid shoes. The Army (who provided the supply support) was constantly querying the squadron home-base maintenance folks about skid shoe usage rates. The maintenance department made up some story and fended off the Army REMF supply types. It was also reasonably spectacular at night, what with the shower of sparks feathering out as much as twenty feet behind us.

Before the sleigh ride takeoff, however, there was another problem which had to be surmounted so to speak. The refuel/rearm "pad" was usually off the runway and across a drainage ditch. (These fields didn't get much fixed-wing traffic) And the helo wouldn't hover. It was about a six to ten foot wide hazard on the average field. There were three options:

1. Load to "boat specs" and sacrifice fuel and ammo, in order to be able to hover over the ditch.
2. Fuel but don't arm until negotiating the hazard, then hump all the ammo that extra distance (and across the ditch) to the runway, which other aircraft might be trying to use.
3. Perform the "clean-and-jerk".

The "clean-and-jerk" was the obvious choice. The gunners and copilot got out and jumped the ditch.... then the helo jumped it. The pilot rapidly lifted the helo up pulling an armful of pitch. The helo would lift off with alacrity, not knowing that it wouldn't keep flying. As the rotor RPM wound down, and before the aircraft started to fall out of the sky, the pilot would quick-slide over the ditch sideways and turn into the direction of "fall" before the helo descended (read "fell") down on the other side of the ditch. Then all would take their seats for the sleigh-ride. With translational lift the helo could climb to transitting altitude and dash back into the fray. On a very hot day, it could take several miles to get to 500 feet. (Very hot day as opposed to hot day. They were ALL hot days.)

Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips