Scramble Seawolves! Part 4

Larry Bradshaw

by Tom Phillips, Seawolf 98 | Reprinted with permission

This is part 4 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 are explained in those articles which are prologue to this one.

On the night of 23 May 1971, a single helo from Det Nine had completed a day of operations with Det Five, our neighbor to the west. We had been operating as a "heavy fire team," adding our single helo to Det Five's normal two-helo light fire team, while our other helo was undergoing some repairs in Binh Thuy, the main Seawolf base. Recall that a Seawolf det would never fly "single ship" except in an extreme emergency, such as Scramble 3 (U.S. in extremis), or own-base defense. So in order to remain gainfully employed, we flew over to join Det Five.

We had had a busy day of it, conducting a morning patrol along the Vinh Te Canal, which marks the border with Cambodia, over to the coast to the west where the Gulf of Thailand washes the Delta. In the course of the day, we had put in some strikes in support of an Army patrol in the vicinity of the Cement Factory, a landmark in Det Five's AO, without stirring up much response. But we HAD stirred up the local hostiles who resided in the caves on the slopes of the Three Sisters, steep mountain "islands" rising over a thousand feet above the otherwise flat plain.

Normally we left the Three Sisters alone. They were a dangerous place because they rose up above the plain with an unrestricted view in all directions. You couldn't normally sneak up on them. As more or less permanent residents, the local Mountain VC had fortified the place and installed some heavier than normal defensive weapons, specifically 12.7 mm heavy anti-air machine guns. This gun was the rough equivalent of an American .50 cal. Not a weapon to be engaged lightly given the armament of the Seawolves. The caves and the rugged terrain of the slopes provided excellent cover and protection without hindering the defending gunners view. They maintained a sharp early-warning lookout at all times.

But the rare occasion of having a heavy fire team caused the creative juices to flow (probably a hormonal problem given the sparsity of good liberty) and encouraged us to think of ways to take advantage of the extra capability. Usually, even straying too close to the steep mountains was enough to generate hostile fire. The extra helo was our little surprise for the local mountain boys. They were accustomed to coming out to "play" with the regular Army two-plane Cobra fire teams who could never resist a stand-up fair fight. The typical VC strategy was to fire on the passing helos, lay low when they turned to engage them with rockets, but rise up to really let fly when the second helo broke off the rocket run, the time when the Cobras were most vulnerable. The Army didn't run many of the older style Huey fire teams in the Delta in 1971. By then, most of their "guns" were the newer AH-1 Cobras. Cobras had no door gunners, and their swivel turrets were limited in arc. Therefore they reached a point where they couldn't return fire when turning away from the target. That's when the VC would stand up and shoot.

Our theory of combat was never to engage in a fair fight unless absolutely necessary. This was not war by the Marquis of Queensbury Rules. We didn't go into fortified sanctuaries trolling for someone who was willing to stand and fight. If they WERE willing to stand up and fight, they must have a good reason, and that smacked of a potentially fair fight. Our idea of a good time was to surprise them out in the open and never give them an even break. Stack the deck in your favor and always be the dealer. We engaged on our terms whenever possible and tried to avoid stupid things like fighting fair when a perfectly delightful advantage was available. We could, however, be seduced into trying something that might be a rollicking good trick that could generate some KBA (killed by aircraft) if there appeared to be minimal risk. This mindset fit right into the Seawolf combat attitude...we were hunters.

May is the "dry" season. Up near the Cambodian border, where some areas are not flooded during the dry season, the local farmers rejuvenate the soil by burning off the old crop vegetation before the next planting season. As a result, there is a respectable haze made up of smoke from countless small farmers trying to make a Pee (piaster-Vietnamese dollar). At Nui Gia, one of the Three Sisters, it was thick, like flying in a milk bottle, especially at the altitude of the caves. Hard to see aircraft from the ground. Add to this environmental condition the heavy fire team, not usually seen in the area. Add to this the fact that the local mountain boys had grown accustomed to Cobras, without the arc of coverage of our door guns. Add to this the unusual firepower of the door mounted mini-gun and door mounted fifties, that the Army didn't mount on their Hueys. Add nails. What you get is a combination of favorable factors that add up to a tempting advantage worth exploiting.

On the way home from the Cement Factory, we decided to pay the local VC mountain militia a little visit. Det Five flew the normal formation, FTL at about a thousand feet altitude, AHAC in trail about a thousand feet back and a hundred feet step up. From this position the trail could roll in on any ground target that took the leader under fire. Remember, the AHAC job description; cover the leader. With this spacing, the leader was completely free to maneuver with little fear of a mid-air, and the trail was relieved of the high concentration levels of formation flying. He could scan the ground, adding another set of eyes to the threat area, and still respond to an FTL maneuver by cutting inside any turn to regain position with little strain. The Det Nine bird, mine, was stepped up a further 200 feet and back about twice the normal thousand feet, and offset away from the mountain a few hundred feet, trying to hide in the haze, banking on the expectation that the enemy would see what he expected and would not see what he was not looking for.

Sure enough, the VC opened up on the leader, as per their SOP for passing U.S. helos. The FTL rolled in, fired a few rockets, broke off to port, with the door gunner holding fire a-la-Cobra, banking that the VC were not too good at helo-in-haze recognition, and would not fire either. They didn't. The trail ship was right there as the leader broke, firing his rockets to cover the lead, as per the script. He broke left. The VC opened fire with about a dozen weapons, small arms. The second helo returned fire with it's door mounted mini-gun. Surprise number one. The third helo, magically appearing out of the haze, hit them with two nails. 4800 fleshettes. Surprise number two. ALL fire from the ground ceased simultaneously as the nails hit. When we broke, there was no return fire, but we washed down the area with two three-second bursts of mini-gun, about 400 rounds, for good measure. By then the FTL was back inbound with another rocket pass and some fifty-cal fire. Return fire from one gun. Oh well, obviously not a clean sweep. Maybe that guy came out of the cave after the first run. We'll never know.

As the two trail helo's made their second rocket runs, the return fire ceased. They didn't want to play any more. So we left. We had exploited our advantage and couldn't see hanging around to let it turn into a fair fight. No future in it.

No future in pushing it.

About two months before, we had had a graphic demonstration of that. In this same vicinity, along a road in the valley between two of the Sisters, Det Five had been involved in supporting an ARVN patrol which had been ambushed. They had scrambled in response to the patrol's call and had engaged the ambushing party in a lively fire fight over the heads of the hunkered-down patrol. Daylight ambushes at this point in the war were rare in the northern Delta. But incursions into the Three Sisters, especially by the ARVN or other non-American forces, often met resistance. The VC would not go out of their way to strike U.S. forces in the vicinity, because U.S. reaction was swift and effective, but they would not hesitate to strike the Vietnamese units. The mountains were a stronghold they could hold because it was close to the supply line from Cambodia. Therefore they would oppose any small unit which strayed too close. (The supply lines and dumps in Cambodia were now, again, off limits, thanks to Congress's Cooper-Church Amendment, which forbade U.S. ground forces from returning to Cambodia after the successful strikes of the Nixon's spring invasion. The mountains were a sanctuary to be held until the strength and supply support lost during the invasion could be replenished. It would be a while before the VC were able to take the offensive in the Delta, thanks to the strike into the sanctuaries). Their presence in the Three Sisters was tolerated by the good guys, who were not willing to pay the price to root them out of the caves in the mountains. Besides they didn't hurt anybody much from up there; and they weren't presently very active beyond the mountain area.

When Det Five, on a scramble, arrived within minutes of the ambush being sprung, the VC had no choice but fight it out with Det Five as they tried to withdraw to the safety of the mountains. The Det expended its load of ammo, and broke contact to rearm. returning to the scene, after a fast hot refuel and rearm at the nearest Ruff-Puff airstrip, within sight of the mountains, they picked up the trail of the withdrawing VC, and expended this second load of ordnance, against sustained, but diminishing, return fire. The VC were obviously dispersing as they fled for the mountains to make it easier to conceal themselves from the marauding gunships. Rearming and returning a third time, it appeared from the trails in the mud and paddies, that the VC had dispersed, abandoning the fight. The Det conducted a reconnaissance by fire, strafing treelines and thickets along the likely withdrawal routes, this time receiving no return fire.

With most of their ammo expended from a third load of ordnance, and no return fire, the FTL decided that the enemy had been neutralized, and that he would make a low pass through the battle area to see if he could get a body count, since he knew the ARVN patrol was not going to sweep the area after its mauling. The trail ship HAC argued against the pass as the FTL descended in a broad sweeping peacetime swoop to arrive over the target area at about fifty knots and a hundred feet.

The trail aircraft could do little but watch as the FTL violated the unwritten rules of prudence, being both too high and too slow. The entire area erupted in gunfire, and the FTL's helo accelerated in excruciating slow motion out of the apex of the fire, with door guns hammering in continuous fire. The trail HAC engaged with guns and covered the staggering leader's agonizingly slow departure. The combined gunfire of the two aircraft's four gunners suppressed the VC fire somewhat, but not completely, as the FTL's aircraft finally cleared the area.

He immediately reported that he had taken hits, was losing transmission oil pressure, had rising transmission temperature, and rising T5. Nobody was wounded. He declared an emergency and headed for the nearest friendly airstrip. Within minutes he reported zero transmission pressure and redline temp. The trail checked over the FTL's aircraft and reported fluids streaming from the under side of the aircraft, and bullet damage in the belly, tail and sides. Didn't look good and it was a ways to go to a friendly field. The FTL descended to a low aititude and slowed to a fast taxi continuing toward the field, ready to set it down at the first indication of transmission seizure. He was losing fuel fast, and there was a question as to whether the bird would flame out, or the transmission destroy itself, before the field was made.

Our det immediately scrambled and raced to rendezvous, as did Det Eight, from over at Rach Gia, on the coast. Neither of us made the rendezvous. Det Five made the field safely. The bird landed, and shut down normally, except that the rotor brake wasn't required to stop the rotors because the seizing of the unloaded transmission when the FTL lowered collective did it for him.

Inspection revealed: a dry transmission, which had run for almost 20 minutes without oil; bullet holes through the combustion chamber and axial compressors of the engine, which had overtemped but kept running until the field was made; bullet holes through the tail rotor drive shaft, which had not chosen to fail from either weakness, or imbalance; over two hundred other holes through the deck, sides, fuel cells, and rotor blades. No one wounded, and the bird not shot down... in the battle area. It WAS down however, (an understatement of the first magnitude) and it took a long time to repair it, a LONG time.

Not as long as it took to repair the ass, and the reputation, of the FTL. He didn't fly FTL for a while, but he did again. He was too good to waste. He got careless. He learned. He survived. So did his crew. We also learned, or relearned. And we got on with the war. That Was a Cheap lesson. It should have been worse. God only knows why it wasn't. No one, but no one would have believed that the transmission, the engine, or the tail rotor drive shaft would have continued to operate with such damage. Bell Helicopter said the transmission was rated for 20 minutes without oil, but no one believed them. I still don't. I wouldn't bet on it.

Lesson: You can't let up for a moment. You can't give the enemy an even break. He is smart. He is cunning. He is fighting for HIS life, just like you. Combat, like aviation itself, is terribly unforgiving of carelessness. No future in it. End interlude.

We flew home from the Three Sisters feeling smug. It is a good feeling to really kick your enemy's ass. Really good. Especially when it was easy. I know how the Desert Storm Troopers must have felt.

The det patrolled daily on a "random" schedule, varying the time, the route, the area patrolled. In addition, if not airborne, the det was on alert, ready to take off at a moments notice. When returning from a hop, the aircraft were fueled, armed, preflighted, and the gear was laid out ready to go, before the crew secured. The Aircraft was usually fueled to about 700 pounds, rather than topped off (1300 pounds) in order to keep the aircraft "light" enough to take off in the heat, humidity, and dead air. The normal shipboard rocket load was 8 to 10 of the available 14 tubes capacity. Again, to save weight. We didn't skimp on machinegun ammunition, which was our "bread and butter".

When a call for help came in, the radio watch on the YRBM would make a judgement call about the seriousness of it. We would scramble for friendlies in contact (called scramble 1), U.S. in contact (scramble 2), or U.S. in extremis (scramble 3). The words and tone of voice was enough to make most calls easy. In that case the radio watch sounded the klaxon, announced "Now Scramble Seawolves" on the 1-MC, and we ran for the aircraft.

When on alert with a well-trained crew, we were truly cocked and ready. My personal best time was from the rack, asleep, to the air, very much awake, in one minute and forty-five seconds. When on alert, we slept in socks, cut-off khakis, and tee-shirt. When the alarm went, it was a matter of stepping into the zoom bag, pulling up the zipper, slipping on the shoulder holster (already adjusted, of course), stepping into the boots and pulling up their zippers (we ALL used zippers; I continued to do so until I retired), and running for the bird.

At the aircraft, each man had a specific job to do. There were no chains or chocks, so that wasn't a problem. One crewman grabbed the fire bottle, and the other untied the rotor blade tied to the tail boom, holding it against engine pressure until the pressure was enough to accelerate it without danger of striking the deck or the tail boom. He then let it go and took his seat in the door.

The first pilot to the aircraft, hit the starter and began spinning up the rotor system to flying RPM. (The start checklist had been previously done to that point). The second pilot to arrive, pulled on his helmet (which was already plugged in), snapped together his flotation LPU through the sewn straps at the waist, and hooked the collar to the D-rings on the chest of the flight suit, and then strapped in the seat harness. He then picked up the start from the other pilot, who promptly hooked up his flotation, strapped in, and pulled on his helmet. By then, the fire bottle was stowed, and the gunners were seated. The pilot lifted to a hover, checked power, got a thumbs-up from the other aircraft, and took off. Most scrambles were at night when the cooler air (marginally) usually allowed the power check to be good.

If there was a question about whether to launch, radio woke the duty FTL who got on the radio and extracted sufficient information to make the decision. If it was go, but not a scramble, the 1-MC announced: "Now flight quarters to launch Seawolves", and we proceeded to the aircraft with a little less urgency than a scramble. If it turned out to be a scramble, the announcement was "Scramble Seawolves!!" and the race was on. The FTL would get the coordinates, call signs, and frequency before running to the bird. If it was a scramble from the get-go, radio passed us the frequency, call sign, and coordinates via runner to the helo as we manned, the FTL running directly to the aircraft in that case with the rest of the fire team.

My most vivid emotional memory of Vietnam revolves around the scrambles. Nothing has ever generated the same excitement, adrenalin, and apprehension. Usually without warning, the alarm would sound, the 1-MC would blare out "Scramble Seawolves, scramble Seawolves!" and we would be propelled from one world into another instantaneously. From the security of the rack or a friendly card game, to full speed action in a heartbeat. No buildup. No chance to get psychologically prepared, to steel yourself, to mask your emotions. You drop whatever you're doing and run for the aircraft.

Despite the bustle of activity to accomplish the launch as quickly as safely possible, which was helpful in reducing the apprehension a little, the mind is still able to conjure up all sorts of frightening images of the unknown, until the information starts to flow, focusing the mind on the reality of the particular situation at hand. Until then, you don't know if this scramble is for support of a PBR in some distant canal, or for assistance of an outpost at some disputed river intersection, in which case you will have time to settle down to business during the transit. Or maybe this scramble is for base defense, in which case the scramble may be under fire, with the det trying to take off in the midst of a mortar or rocket attack, in which case you may be fighting for your life immediately, or dead before you can get airborne.

A close second for tension was heading inbound to a known hot firefight or to a potentially "hot" LZ (landing zone) to insert SEALS. KNOWING that someone is going to be shooting at you soon and waiting for the shooting to start can be hard on the nerves. At least in those situations you are halfway briefed on the situation and feel that you have some control over the outcome because of your training and skill.

While parts of the Mekong Delta were safe from an immediate daily threat from the VC, the country was in a wild and wooly condition not unlike cattle drive boom towns as depicted by Hollywood. There were plenty of "cowboys" who could swipe your watch right off your wrist, or cut your wallet right out of your pants before you knew what hit you. This threat was not unique to Vietnam; any regular Navy port of call featured the identical threat including certain parts of several stateside ports.

The other major terror was the large number of VN Army personnel newly outfitted with "deuce-and-a-half" army trucks. They knew only one speed, redline (engine internal hemorrhage), and observed only one traffic law, the "law of gross tonnage". (The law of gross tonnage, for you young sailors not yet ship qualified, states, roughly, that the greater the tonnage, the greater the right-of-way, and let collision damage be the final arbiter of who is most right if there is a dispute). The impact of this proliferation of trucks (everybody in a VN uniform seemed to have one), on the fragile foot-bicycle-cyclo-occasional Peugeot sedan indigenous colonial traffic system, (which formerly operated using a quaint live-and-let-live courtesy and deference to the smaller vehicle), was a sad commentary on our military assistance program and one of our worst legacies. It might not have been so bad had there been any effort to provide driving instruction. The failure to provide proper driving instruction is not a documented fact, it is instead a common and compelling conclusion, held universally by Americans stationed in-country, based on close and frequently terrifying observation.

There were frequent "nervous reaction" radio calls from units who were seeing and hearing things in the dark. We never blamed them for their nerves, and seldom failed to launch. Some locations, however, gained the reputation for being too easily spooked. They had to plead their case a little more convincingly than others. I'm happy to say that none of them ever cried wolf too often. It would have been traumatic to not scramble for one of them, who was subsequently overrun by the enemy. That is why we scrambled when in doubt. Such launches were known as "scrambles to the POL" (POL was the Army name for refueling sites). We would scramble, sort out the situation, show up at the unit, perhaps put in a strike at a suspected location in the vicinity (for our training, and THEIR morale), and then go to one of the Army outlying sites for fuel and ammo - a scramble to the POL, no known enemy contact. We would occasionally get credit for some KBA (killed by aircraft) on one of the "no-contact" hops, but a scramble to the POL was usually uneventful.

That night, the night of the battle at Hoa Binh outpost, after a fun day at Three Sisters, we hit the rack early, like good little boys, to sleep the sleep of the victorious. No option. We were still on alert, therefore we could not yet drink to our victory. Since we didn't know what the night would bring as far as alerts were concerned, everyone grabbed sleep while the grabbing was good. We did know that we had a double chance of launching because we were covering two AO's, Det Five's and Det Nine's. Sure enough, around midnight, the FTL was awakened by the base radio watch with the news that the airstrip at Moc Hoa was under mortar fire. Moc Hoa was on the other side of the Det Nine AO. We discussed the news. Normally Moc Hoa would get a few rounds each night or so and then things would quiet down. Before we could ponder further, Moc Hoa was on the line again to report that this was the heaviest shelling they had received in a long time, and they would appreciate a little friendly suppression. We decided to launch.


Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips

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