This is the story of the fight at Hoa Binh outpost, Republic of South VIetnam, as seen by this Navy Seawolf helicopter pilot. 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.
There have been four articles leading up to this point. 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.
The new outpost at Hoa Binh had just been built and was becoming a problem for the VC. It was at the intersection of two canals which were right on the prime supply route across the Plain of Reeds in what might be called neutral territory. The route led down into the heart of the Delta and several VC base areas. It upset the status quo for the area, putting an aggravating crimp in the normal movement of supplies and personnel. They evidently decided to take it out, inflict a defeat on the local Ruff Puffs, force the Government to review the bidding on whether expansion into disputed territory was worth the price, and, hopefully have the government return to the status quo. An NVA sapper unit was moved from Cambodia to join with the local VC to overrun and demolish the outpost. The fly in the ointment as far as the Sappers plans were concerned was the quick-reaction night close-air support capability of the Seawolves. It didn't pay to stand up and fight against air superiority in the Delta, especially out in the open away from the protective mangrove swamps, triple canopy forests, or fortifications.
After action speculation surmised that their plan was a follows: With the "local" Seawolf Det (Nine) not at home, (the YRBM-21 flight deck was empty with one aircraft at Binh Thuy and the other over with Det Five), an opportunity to overrun Hoa Binh was at hand. A diversion to the East, over at Moc Hoa, would suffice to draw out the only other quick-reaction night-fighting helicopters, Seawolf Det Four, based over to the east of Moc Hoa. After Det Four had responded from out of their own AO to the mortar attack on Moc Hoa, and headed home, there would be a window of opportunity to overrun Hoa Binh, with no ready air available for response. The VC must not have anticipated that the reinforced Det Five at Chau Doc would assume responsibility for the Det Nine AO. Or maybe they didn't know that our aircraft had joined Det Five. They did have something of a communication problem, given the conditions under which they fought.
We scrambled from Chau Doc "for the POL" at Moc Hoa without great enthusiasm; after all we had had a busy day already. It was already past midnight, and past our bedtime. Since it was across the Det Nine AO, my Helo, Seawolf 98, was leading and doing the navigating. The two Det Five birds, Seawolves 55 and 52 fell in at 1000 yard intervals astern. We were too far out to talk to Moc Hoa on UHF or FM, so we checked in with the local Province senior advisor, to let him know we were airborne, and to relay to Moc Hoa via HF that we were on the way, (and could they provide some mid-rats for the trip home so the night wouldn't be a total waste).
As my copilot, Steve Hanvey, tuned in his frequency, I saw a flash ahead on the horizon. The senior advisor immediately responded to the initial call, and advised us that Hoa Binh was under mortar attack and needed assistance immediately. At first I thought he meant Moc Hoa. We cleared that misunderstanding up quickly enough and he gave us the FM frequency for the U.S. advisors at Hoa Binh. There were three of them there with the new Ruff Puff unit of about thirty plus assorted family and livestock. Steve switched me to the Hoa Binh frequency while he tried to pinpoint just where we were relative to Hoa Binh in order to give me a vector. We were headed straight for Hoa Binh out of sheer luck because it was on the track for Moc Hoa.
It was a dark and moonless night. (Isn't that the standard beginning for a "there I was..." war story?) Well, it really WAS a dark and moonless night. Really dark, since no city or even village was within the horizon. Not that there was a horizon. With the smoke-haze from the burning, and the milk-bottle effect, unseen in the dark, but effective in blotting out the sky and any possible horizon, the stars weren't visible and the only "normal" light was from scattered farmers hootches whose solitary lights shone like stars and gave the impression, with the overcast, that we were upside down with stars below and darkened Vietnamese land (like you would find in potentially hostile areas) above. Good night for vertigo. It was also trackless at night, a real navigation challenge. Just like blue water night ASW without Navaids, although I didn't know about that stuff at the time, being a first-tour jaygee.
As Steve was commenting that he wasn't sure how far it was to Hoa Binh, we both saw more flashes ahead in the dark. Lew Madden, the Det Five FTL, Seawolf 55, who was in the number two helo behind, was calling on UHF to comment about the flashes as I called Hoa Binh. He was talking on UHF as my call was answered on the FM. The answer on FM, an American voice, an EXCITED American voice, was punctuated with the loud staccato of rifle and machine gun fire, just like in the movies. The guns blotted out his words, his FM transmission stepped on Lew's UHF transmission, Lew stepped on Steve's ICS, and a placid transit through the dark to the POL at Moc Hoa rapidly began to turn to shit. It was a long time before it got any better that night.
Undeterred, the American voice in the outpost came right back with a calmer call. He knew who we were. Everybody knew who the Seawolves were, especially the diminishing numbers of Americans left in the boonies as the Vietnamization of the war took effect in the Delta. What he wanted to know was WHERE we were, and more importantly, how long until we were overhead. I replied that we could see the flashes ahead. He responded that they were much more clear from his vantage point. Good line. We appreciated his sarcasm. He gave a succinct report of the situation, and it was not good. For starters, the report of a mortar attack that the Province senior advisor received was the first and last message on the outpost HF radio that made it out of the comm bunker before it took a direct hit. That hit knocked out the radio and killed one of the American advisors. The comm bunker was logically the first target of the mortars attack. A good tactical move by the NVA to delay reinforcements. They just didn't nail it quite soon enough to seal the doom of Hoa Binh. That dead American advisor was quick enough in his appreciation of the situation to get the word out in time, at the cost of his own life. His quick reaction was another little thing that went wrong with the NVA plan. I wonder if anyone recognized or rewarded his selfless act.
To continue, the Voice said that the outpost was under infantry and sapper attack, and they were already on the walls. I rogered and told him that we were about five minutes out, the only encouragement I could think of. He replied that five minutes might be too late. A grim answer that caused us to begin a shallow descent, the only way we could make those BRAVOs go any faster. The flashes were coming closer as we sped through the night. Suddenly there was a bright orange and red fireball from the outpost ahead. The advisor immediately reported that the ammo bunker had just been sapped and that they were inside the walls. I told him to hang on, we were almost there. I broadcast to the two trail aircraft that we would make one rocket pass, break right into a 270 turn and circle the outpost presenting our right door guns to the target. We rolled in for a rocket attack without even a single pass for orientation. I didn't even get a chance to put on my chicken plate. A quick call to ask the Voice where he wanted it. Right on the southern wall was the reply, the friendlies had pulled back to the northern bunker corner. It was easy to see the features of the outpost, most of the hootches in the central compound and along the south wall were on fire, bathing everything in a red hellish glow. (The night scenes from the movie "Apocalypse Now" captured the mood perfectly. That movie made me very uncomfortable).
The helicopter felt wrong. Instead of commencing the run at 60 knots to allow for the acceleration that over-gross old BRAVO was going to make, we entered at about 100 knots, ten knots below redline. It did not like the speed it was going, and it was letting me know. A little whiff of blade stall for which I could, or would, do nothing to alleviate under the circumstances. The proper response to impending blade stall is to reduce the severity of the maneuver and slow down. Guess what NATOPS! I was entering the most important rocket I had ever made. So much for the option to reduce the severity of the maneuver. I felt like we were running amok, and had a very uneasy feeling that was superimposed over the standard unease and adrenalin of imminent combat. I squeezed off two rockets in succession, all that there was time for in that too-fast rocket run without risking a stray. At that, I aimed for the outer base of the walls, in the wire. The gunners were cleared to work along the wall and in the wire, but not into the floor of the outpost. With the speed and the abnormal power, the first rocket weathervaned as I should have known it would do. (Getting a little excited here). It went beyond the aimpoint and landed where the second was intended, and the second went long also, heading for the canal just beyond the end of the wall. No danger to the good guys because we were flying parallel to the face of the wall. No apparent danger to the enemy either. Damn! Wasted. I was cussing under my breath for having forgotten to compensate for the extra speed of this abnormal run and screwed up the proper placement of the rockets.
The first rocket made the customary white flash at it exploded, and the second, which I would have expected to make a muffled splash-flash in the canal had I been thinking about it then, (which I wasn't), caused the biggest red and orange mushroom fireball I ever hope to see that close. I had lucked into hitting the sappers ammo sampan, filled with the demolitions intended to demolish the fort after it was taken. Serendipity. Never even knew it was there.
I was starting the normal right roll to break off the rocket run when the explosives went up in our faces. I'm sure I jerked the collective and added some roll in reaction to the unexpected explosion, because we found ourselves in a forty degree angle of bank at about fifty feet and one hundred thirty knots (twenty knots over red line for that model, even when NOT overloaded). O.K. no problem, merely raise the nose, level out, and let momentum take us up, up, and away, trading airspeed for altitude, right back into the normal gun circle which we had briefed.
EXCEPT THE FLIGHT CONTROLS WERE FROZEN STIFF AND WOULD NOT MOVE !
We had a hydraulics flight controls hardover. The old BRAVOS had the nasty habit of occasionally locking up like that if the controls were moved too quickly at high speeds. The fluid flow was more than a certain one-way check-valve somewhere in the system could stand. One side over-pressurized jamming the check-valve, and the corrective step was to have the pilot not on the controls cycle the hydraulics switch from ON to OFF to back ON, which always restored the hydraulics. It isn't really a difficult emergency since cycling the hydraulics always worked, and there was always plenty of altitude, because what idiot would be moving controls too abruptly, at high speed and low altitudes, at night.
Somehow, Idiot 98 had managed to induce this little situation at 50 feet, 40 degrees angle of bank, on a dark and moonless night, in a roaring fire-fight. Both gunners were firing continuously. My copilot was busy hosing down the area with the flex pylon mini-gun. Bedlam. Three guns roaring without ceasing within six feet of my head. There was so much noise that even with the ICS, Steve could not hear me screaming to cycle the hydraulics. Target fixation on his part perhaps. I was screaming so loud that I was CERTAIN that the ICS was NOT necessary. Nevertheless, he continued to ignore me and we continued to tear across the wire and minefield, right over the heads of the attacking enemy, at 50 feet, and 40 degrees angle of bank in a helicopter that was not being piloted, I don't care how much adrenalin was assisting the pilot inputs. We were passengers. Screaming wasn't helping.
To let go of the controls in that flight regime was against all my instincts. I could NOT make myself do it. Instead, I kept trying to get Steve to help. It was an impossible situation and an absurd one. There occurred a moment of calm quiet in which a voice of reason said: "you might as well do it yourself, nobody else is going to do it, and you're not flying this thing anyway. Since you're not flying it, it really isn't going against good judgement to let go of the collective at 50 feet and 130 knots". I was persuaded. So I let go of the collective flight control lever, reached over and cycled the hydraulics, quickly regained the suddenly free-moving collective, and pulled in some power to start us climbing. With SMALL control inputs. The crew didn't even know what had happened until I told them later.
The rest of the fire team had watched me raging across the deck like a Madman with all guns blazing, rather than climbing back out as briefed. They didn't follow. Instead Lew lead his wingman into a climbing circle around the outpost. He stayed at a few hundred feet rather than going back up to the customary 1000 feet. It was obvious that there was going to be a lot of really CLOSE air support until that attack broke, and it was necessary to get down where they could deliver accurate fire. Being in the dead man zone was a little more acceptable in this situation, it was dark out there. Besides, it was necessary if our firepower was going to be accurate enough to break the attack. So much for not giving the enemy an even break. THEY were dealing and had stacked the deck for themselves. We had to stand up and make it a fair fight if we were to do any good. Damn.
By now the Voice was screaming to pour it on, that they were running back for the walls. We joined the rest of the fire team and fell in astern, covering the burning outpost with a cascade of tracers from three aircraft.
Now the job of flying became difficult, as opposed to the terrifying that it was a minute ago. Third aircraft in line in a low three or four hundred foot circle, going around a flaming fluctuating light source. To the left, outside the circle, was profound blackness, made more deep by the contrast single spot light source to the right. Stay on the gages, this is IFR. Don't fixate on the outpost, however tempting, (talk about moth to flame!) but keep it in the scan to maintain standoff. Keep a decent interval. Don't fall back too far or risk being in line with the ricochets from the leader; more of a problem than usual because there were three of us, instead of the normal two. Keep a steady angle of bank, not dipping the rotors too quickly, to avoid placing the rotor tips in the stream of outgoing bullets from my own gunner; more of a problem than usual since we were forced to an uncharacteristically low altitude for a night engagement. Superimpose all this on a little jinking up and down, more like floating really. Mustn't provide too good of a target. Does jinking help? Don't know. It helps morale, but must be tempered with need to provide a relatively stable gun platform. (I'm not sure that I kept up much of a jinking program that night.)
When we had exhausted the starboard guns, the fire team calmly reversed the circle by the most expeditious means, a turn together, which placed me once again in the lead. Much more relaxing for me, I only had to maintain position relative to the outpost and try to be a smooth leader. A better chance to observe the action in the outpost and in the wire. We then commenced to expend the port gunners remaining ammo, less the small supply for the M-60 that we always held in reserve for the trip home. The attack was broken. The sappers were gone except for the dead and wounded. Just like that they were gone. Poof! Nothing to shoot at. No muzzle flashes back at us.
We told the American advisor that we were going for more ammo and that we would be back as soon as we had rearmed at Moc Hoa. He said fine, and thanked us. We turned for Moc Hoa. As we cleared the area, we remained up the frequency at Hoa Binh, which was lucky, because, when it was clear to the sappers that we were departing, they commenced another attack. They must have thought that the outpost could be taken while we were offstation getting re-armed. The Voice started calling frantically. The defenses were beaten down to such an extent that there was very little to keep the sappers from virtually picking up where they had left off. The enemy was crossing the wire and mines, virtually unopposed this time, because the defenders had not taken the chance to reorganize before the unexpected renewed attack.
We were almost out of ammo, and the gun barrels in my helo were still too hot to change even with the asbestos glove. The barrels were ruined. But we had rockets, so we turned back and arrived overhead in short order. This time the rocket attack was a little less frantic. A LOT less frantic actually. We hit the wire with three each. The Voice told us that his defenders had scrambled back again to the northern bunker, so the next salvo walked the rockets in along the walls. We still were afraid to try to put rockets inside the walls. By now the barrels had cooled enough to change and the M-60s were back in action, sweeping the southern half of the outpost. The attack broke again just about the same time we ran out of ammunition for the M-60's.
I checked my fuel expecting to find that we were on fumes after all the action. I still had a half a bag. Couldn't believe it so I checked the other birds. Yep, they had the same. This whole thing had only taken about ten minutes or so. Amazing. We patrolled around the outpost for another five minutes looking for targets and to make sure the bad guys were not regrouping. Seemed quiet so we checked out with the Voice, who was not happy to hear that we were leaving. We had to get ammo we said and it wouldn't be long before we would need fuel too. We turned for Moc Hoa.
No sooner had we cleared the area, than those sappers returned to the attack. The defenders had learned from their last episode, and the extra time we gave them after the second attack had been put to good use expeditiously reestablishing the defense perimeter at the walls of the outpost. But the Voice called for help. Lew told him we were out of ammunition, down to our M-14 personal rifles. What's wrong with that, came the retort from the Voice, we've been using them down here all night long! Irrefutable situational logic. "Roger that" said Lew, "the next sound you hear will be the famous 45 automatic pistol!" "Bring it" said the Voice, and we turned back once again for the outpost.
As we approached, we turned on our spotlights to make sure the NVA knew we were coming. The defenders were retiring back into the northern bunker again as we arrived. Lew's wingman had a couple of rockets left, which he put in the wire. We made the next few passes shooting our two M-14s out the pilots and gunners doors on automatic, trying to sound like a real gunship. The M-14 magazines were loaded with all tracers, because we had figured that the rifles would be most useful for signaling, since any downed helo would have its own M-60s for defense, and we had our personal sidearms for the last ditch. Little did we know then that our "last ditch" would be from 300 feet above an outpost instead of at 3 inches above a rice paddy dike. I even cranked out two clips of .45 after the rifle magazines were used up. Steve lobbed out M-79 grenade rounds as fast as he could load.
It was a pitiful display of firepower. My left gunner contented himself with dropping smoke grenades as fast as he could pull the pins. To our amazement, the Voice reported that the attack had stopped and they were falling back across the wire. We had run a bluff based on our PAO clippings and it had worked. Maybe the smokes had caused the NVA commander to think that we were marking targets for reinforcements that were on the way. Who knows. Whatever the reason, they stopped and we streaked for Moc Hoa low state, this time for real. We told the Voice that we would be back ASAP.
Enroute, I called ahead and gave Moc Hoa the situation and requested that they make sure the fuel pumps were lit off and that there be no delay. I then called the Province Senior Advisor and reported the action and that I wasn't sure that the fighting was over. I requested assistance. He rogered for the request but did not relay a plan before it was time to switch to Moc Hoa for landing. We weren't going to wait for the answer; time was of the essence. We landed at Moc Hoa ready to go into the all-hands rearm drill. It wasn't necessary because the Navy guys at Moc Hoa had turned out in force to assist. They humped, they fueled, we loaded. We even swapped M-14 magazines with the security force and some guy gave me two 45 clips to replace mine. They brought sandwiches and cokes. No kidding. God, they were good sandwiches! Rainbow cold cuts never tasted better. We were all so high on adrenalin, that we couldn't stand still.
While two of us were still spinning, Lew had shut down. He had reported some lateral vibrations during the transit to Moc Hoa, and was checking things out. "Things" weren't good. A casual look at the rotor blades revealed a hole in one of them about the size of a large softball, out about two feet from the tip. Courtesy of one of the hostiles at Hoa Binh. This was the obvious cause of the vibration. The two blades no longer had the identical amount of honeycomb aluminum faired to the main spar as when originally installed on the aircraft. Therefore, according to the immutable laws of aerodynamics, they were in imbalance. A downing discrepancy, rendering that aircraft no longer flyable by all that is holy; in this case the almighty maintenance manual. The solution to this downing discrepancy involved installing a new balanced set of rotor blades before the aircraft could legally fly again.
Imbalances in the dynamic components are taken quite seriously in a flying machine which depends on careful balance of numerous parts to keep from literally shaking itself to pieces. (Some smart guy once described helicopters as large numbers of parts in close formation going approximately the same direction). This problem was not a mere technicality dreamed up by some wimp. But there was another problem, an overriding one; Hoa Binh and two Americans in deep Kim-chee. Lew's first crewman grabbed some ordnance tape and wrapped the tip of the damaged blade with several wraps. Lew cranked it up, lifted into a hover, and set it down again. Still had a lateral vibration. Shut down. More tape. Crank it. Check the lateral. Better. More tape. Crank again.
Meanwhile, with the hole in Lew's helicopter as food for thought, we all turned to our own helo's and checked them over. The other det five bird was O.K. My helo had a new hole in the copilot's front door post. In one side, out the other. We looked for another hole in the helo somewhere where the bullet could have hit after exiting the door post. Couldn't find one. It must have flown on across the helo and out one of the other doors. Looking into the helo, at the seats, the gear, where the people were, we tried to calculate how that bullet could have done that without hitting somebody or some thing. After one or two suggestions, we suddenly looked at each other and dropped the subject. Nobody had heard it hit us. Usually a hit makes a very loud and distinct sound, not unlike a stone landing on a tin roof with a resounding whack. But no one remembered hearing anything that could have sounded like a hit. Weird. Probably took the hit during the first rocket run when it was noisier in the helo than I had ever heard before. Usually one gun is firing; either the copilot in a forward run, or one gunner or the other. Not so in the target rich environment of the first run at Hoa Binh.
By now Lew had gotten the proper amount of tape to minimize the lateral. We briefly discussed the advisability of flying with the tape. Very briefly. I gave him a chance to back out with grace, murmuring some perfectly logical observations. I thought the bird was down, and we still had two up birds. More about how no one would criticize a perfectly logical decision to down the bird. His crew was standing behind him listening to the exchange. They did, after all, have a vested interest in the outcome of this discussion. Lew looked at me and said: "We're wasting time, let's go." His two gunners immediately turned and jumped in the helo. The decision had been made. If Mr. Madden said it was up, that was good enough for them, it was up. And screw the rear echelon MFs and their maintenance books. The copilot stood there a little longer, saying nothing, then he also climbed in. We went. No problem.
As soon as we got within radio range of Hoa Binh, we were surprised to hear the Voice. Hoa Binh was under attack again! Unbelievable. Somebody in authority in the VC/NVA chain of command really wanted that place. Evidently, the last attack had disrupted them a lot because they had not started this attack until just about the time we were lifting off from Moc Hoa. Maybe they waited to see if we would come back, and not seeing us return right away, decided we had called it a night. Who knows. Maybe they waited for us like gentlemen. Right. But for whatever reason, the fight was on again. We streaked for Hoa Binh. Enroute I called the Province Senior Advisor and reported the situation. He had not heard any word from Hoa Binh. He said that the Army was mustering up a "package" of guns and troops to be inserted at first light to trap the enemy. No comment. "First light" was a long way off.
The situation was as bad as it had been earlier by the time we got there. Something was still burning inside the place and throwing an orange glow across the features of the outpost. Since the approach was another redline airspeed run, we elected to skip the rocket run that had been performed in the first engagement. No one wanted to duplicate Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, especially me. We needed to get down to accurate gun altitude straight away so that we could start making a difference. The first pass, then, was a headlong level rush. This time I could see them on the walls. First time that night. Dozens of muzzle flashes. Weird that I didn't see any during the earlier action. We hosed down the walls and the wire on the initial pass and turned immediately into a right circle at about three hundred feet. We then worked the fire into the compound with the encouragement of the Voice, who kept asking for the fire to come closer. Evidently things were desperate in the little corner of the outpost still held by the friendlies.
While we could see people in the wire and on the walls, picking out people inside the outpost was much more difficult. Instead we watched tracers crisscross the place. We also watches numerous ricochets sail up in our direction. I guess nobody had ever told the Ruff Puffs to hold fire when their target was in line with friendly aircraft. Given the situation, I decided that this was not the time to bring it up. Chalk the ricochets up to occupational hazard. They were probably only a statistically small part of the threat anyway. Try not to think about it. Funny what goes through your mind. Worrying about being hit by a ricochet! Indeed.
The attack broke just like the other times. We rocketed the wire as they fell back through it. Then they were gone, vanished into the sanctuary of the dark. The Voice reported the outpost clear of living "VC", adding that the other surviving American had been hit badly. "O.K.", Lew replied, "we'll pick him up for medevac."
"Not with your rotor blade, YOU won't", came the reply from Lew's wingman; Seawolf 52.
"I'm in the best position right now to make the approach, 52, so you two set up to cover me", said I, much to my own surprise. I really did NOT want to make an approach to that lit-up outpost with all those surviving enemy probably hovering at the edge of the dark. Speed is life, even if it IS only 100 knots. Besides there was far too much light for a lover of stealth. This was beginning to sound like the enemy was going to be given another fair shot, and you know how we felt about that.
Just then, in the great traditions of Hollywood itself, a shining knight "rode up" in the form of an Army "Dustoff" medevac helicopter. Right on cue. Drama 101 would pan this script as not having the ring of truth. Well, skeptics, it really happened like this.
"Seawolf, this is Dustoff 01, you're not horning in on my turf are you? Why don't you ALL cover ME? I'M the Dustoff, you're the gunships."
"Sounds like a plan 01," said Lew, "we do guns, you do medevac... turn in on my call... break.... 52, lead him in, 98 follow him, I'll cover high."
We joined on the Dustoff, who called the Voice and asked how many wounded did they have. One U.S., half a dozen Ruff Puffs, was the reply. That meant there was room for the Voice and Dustoff alerted him to stand by. 52 turned in, firing his remaining rockets, while we all sprayed the dark with machine guns. Dustoff made an uneventful approach drawing no fire. He landed in the middle of the outpost, between burning hootches. We circled protectively, guns trained out. Being on the inside of the turn, I watched the action in the outpost. People came out of the woodwork and thronged around the Dustoff. The wounded were loaded, but then trouble began, as several unwounded Ruff Puffs tried to board. The Dustoff lifted into a hover with people hanging on the skids, and the Dustoff crewmen pounding on them with boot and fist. The pilot radioed that he couldn't take off with that load and they were having problems getting the unwounded Ruff Puffs off the skids. The next logical step was shaping up to be real nasty, if Dustoff was going to be able to take off.
Suddenly there was an explosion on the wall. Mortar fire! The next landed in the compound, and the people around the helicopter started running for cover in all directions. But not all. A few remained clinging to the helo. Before they could be pushed off or pulled in, an explosion went off right under the Dustoff, which was flung into the air and backwards from his hovering position in the outpost, scattering bodies as people clinging to the helo fell away. Out he popped from the compound like a champagne cork, and came fluttering down outside the walls, IN the wire, and IN THE MINEFIELD. Miraculously, he landed right side up, and the rotor blades coasted down, obviously devoid of all power, the one white blade giving the appearance of extreme imbalance as it slowed down. We held our collective breath waiting for him to set off a mine.
"Get me outta here, Seawolves, this bird is done!" came the succinct Estimate of the Situation by Dustoff 01. Seawolf 52 swooped in to a landing just outside the still-turning rotors without direction from anyone. The occupants of Dustoff 01 scrambled from their wounded helo and started across the gap to Seawolf 52. Were they walking on eggs? How do you negotiate a minefield full of concertina wire under mortar fire, carrying wounded? The gunner on the outboard side of 52 opened up a covering fire, and the other gunner jumped down IN THE MINEFIELD and went to assist the ambulatory guys who were struggling with the wounded, the earlier ones and the newly wounded.
The copilot of 52 swept his mini-gun across the horizon in front of them in three second bursts, but the gunner kept his head best of all. He concentrated on one muzzle flash at a time. We couldn't see the muzzle flashes aimed at him, but we could see his tracers. He reported that he was marking targets with his fire. A burst from him was followed by a storm from the two airborne helos until, one by one in relatively rapid succession, each muzzle flash was silenced. It seemed rapid to me. To Seawolf 52, I'm sure it was excruciatingly slow.
By that gunners cool action, the enemy guns were subjected, not only to the additional volume of fire, but to plunging fire from two directions simultaneously. In the open, in unprepared positions, there would be no place to hide from such concentrations of fire. A soldier might be able to shield himself from the ground fire of the grounded helo coming in one direction, but not from three directions in three dimensions. The gunners cool technique also conserved his barrel. He couldn't keep up any high volume of fire from the ground because of the problem of the gun overheating without the slipstream to cool it. Had he rashly kept up his customary volume of fire, his gun would have been quickly destroyed leaving the left side of the helicopter defenseless and exposed to unanswered fire.
Instead, the enemy gave up that game and contented himself with mortar fire. As soon as the enemy guns fell silent, we ranged farther afield searching for the mortars. We never really saw them, but they stopped firing, either running low on ammunition, or electing to avoid presenting themselves as targets to the dominant gunships.
Seawolf 52 finally lifted off with the survivors of Dustoff 01, incredibly, with no one touching off any mines. We never did see any mines explode that night. Curious. Were they really there? Might explain how the initial assault on the outpost gained the walls so fast. Never did find out the answer to that and many other questions I had that night.
As we turned for Moc Hoa once again, a "Spooky" checked in. Spooky was an Air Force DC-3, with a phalanx of mini-guns and all the ammunition in the world, the predecessor to the AC-130's of Desert Storm fame. He was Spooky to us, but was more commonly known as "Puff the Magic Dragon" in the popular civilian press. Whatever his name, he was a welcome addition. We gave him the coordinates of Hoa Binh, he reported the flames in sight, we suggested that he put his fire around the outpost on all sides. He did. Before we had fairly left the area, he commenced his run. Spooky would orbit the target and aim his battery of guns by banking the aircraft to the proper angle. Together the guns put out about 300 rounds per SECOND. That's about 75 TRACERS per second, an unbelievable stream of red that merges into a continuous flow. It literally pours out like water. We couldn't hear him shoot like we could our own guns, but we could see it vividly. All the more eerie because of the absence of gun sounds. Surreal. Nightmarish. One look at that stream and we accelerated our efforts to get completely clear of the area. Spooky put the cap on the night's activities. There were no more attacks on Hoa Binh.
As we headed for Moc Hoa with the wounded, the Province Senior Advisor announced the impending launch of an Army airmobile "package", a group of transport helicopters carrying an infantry unit. He requested that we return after dropping off the wounded, and rearming and refueling, to provide gun support for the insertion of the troops. I rogered for the instructions, and we flew to Moc Hoa in silence. The boys at Moc Hoa were ready again to assist, and the ambulances were there at the refueling pits to take off the wounded. We ran to rearm, Lew checked his damaged blade. The ambulances moved in to just outside the turning blades of the other two helos.
We got only a glimpse of the wounded advisor as he was whisked away with the faceless Ruff Puffs. He waved one arm to each passing man as we ran to rearm and refuel. One of the gunners was able to grab that passing hand and give it a squeeze for all of us. We gathered around the Voice. He had seen his wounded buddy off and remained to have a few words with us. Dustoff pilots, crewmen, Seawolf pilots and gunners, and the Voice. He was grimy, dirty, sweaty, and bloody. Don't know whose blood. Maybe he didn't either at that point. Might have been his own. He stunk of sweat, Vietnam mud, a particularly foul variant of the universal substance, and he stunk of oil and rubber smoke. We were grimy, sweaty, and stunk of gunpowder and old sweat. There is something about the fire-proof Nomex material of flight suits that causes a unique reek as soon as it is mixed with sweat, even only a little. We had sweated a lot, but we hadn't bled, thank God. Others weren't as lucky.
As the Moc Hoa people bustled around us, we took a minute to shake hands all around. The handshakes turned in to shameless embraces, and tears streaked more than one dirty face. The filth and smells deterred not the need to touch each other, and shake each other in instant bonding. Probably more of the adrenalin. Somebody asked the Dustoffs if the mortar had gotten their engine. "Take your pick", was the reply. "The caution panel looked like it was in test; engine, transmission, and who knows what. Fuel pouring out like a sieve."
The birds were ready and the war waited. Time to go. I don't remember what was said as we parted, if it was jest, or serious, if it was great or trite. If the Voice said anything, I'm sorry I missed it, he had been highly entertaining all night. But we didn't need words, they added nothing to the looks and the embraces. We manned up and launched. I never saw the Voice, or the Dustoffs, again. But they will always be with me, until the day I die.
Back at Hoa Binh. As the sun rose to begin another day and end the long, long, night, the VN troops were inserted about half a "click" (500 yards) down the canal from the outpost and swept along the canal to the outpost. They didn't find any live enemy. They had disappeared. No kidding. They didn't find any bodies either, until they got near the wire. I guess that means we didn't get a clean sweep. They DID find numerous blood trails. Gratifying. I'll bet they also found numerous piles of feces after Spooky got through with them. But they didn't mention anything like that. Spooky sure impressed the heck out of us. I don"t know where he came from, and we never saw a Spooky again, but it was good to have him that night. He broke their back, I think. But maybe they had already had enough. The dawn was only a couple of hours away when Spooky checked in and to be caught out in the open with the rising sun would have been simple suicide for the VC.
We made a few expanding circles around the area, in the growing light, after the troops were inserted looking for trails, but found nothing. On the theory that they have to be there somewhere, we lacerated every bush in sight with machine gun fire. There weren't all that many of them in that area, which was predominantly grassy reed "drowned meadows". Every treeline was strafed. The trees were usually scattered along the canals edges, and occasionally grouped in small copses here and there. They all got their fair share of lead until we ran out of ammunition. We returned to the outpost and flew by as the sun was beginning to warm the mud walls.
It was a lowly mud triangle, surrounded by concentric rows of concertina in the deep and wavy grass. A row of Army helos were parked neatly along one of the canal banks outside the wire. The dustoff helo sat in the wire intact, with its blades akimbo, but no other signs that it was dead. There were several dozen men lying in the wire who were, by contrast, not intact. Obviously quite dead. The fires were no longer showing in the compound, but smoke rose from several hootches. They mixed with cooking fires. Life goes on. The ammo bunker sandbags were spread out from their original location, which was now a crater. The comm bunker was collapsed into itself in a heap. Most of the hootches in the southern half were charred and collapsed. VN Army troops stood all around the compound watching us circle the outpost. Several men were bending over the dead in the compound, where they had fallen, and many other dead were arranged in lines covered with tarps, or exposed to the morning sun. Vietnamese women and even a few children could be seen among the people in the compound. Laundry hung on the inner wire. Was it there last night? There was no flag flying anywhere to be seen. No inspirational signs of glory or defiance. Only signs of weariness.
We circled once and waved. Then we flew home. I was as tired as I had ever been before or since. The adrenalin hangover, after using up so much for so long, really compounded the fact that we had strained from midnight to six without a break. We were drained. No one spoke a word. A quiet parting with Det Five when time came for our paths to diverge as they went home to Chau Doc. One phrase from the FTL; "Well done 98". When we had the beautiful YRBM-21 in sight, Steve wisely reminded me that the fight was over but the flight wasn't. We still had to successfully make a no wind hover landing to a spot on that ridiculously small flight deck. Day landing and light. No sweat. Done that lots of times. Then the wisdom of Steve's words sank in. One instant of inappropriate relaxation now and the VC would salvage a small victory from the jaws of defeat. The landing was without incident. Smart pilot that Hanvey. The Safety Officer would have been proud. Yeah, the squadron had one. Would you believe it?
When we got back to the YRBM, we could smell the bread baking. The cooks always made bread every morning, and the heavenly smell was enough to wake the dead. After cleaning the guns and refueling, we made a bee-line for the galley. There, the bakers gave each of us an uncut loaf of bread, still in the baking tins, right out of the oven, with a full stick of butter. It was so hot we had to toss it from hand to hand as it cooled. The butter melted rapidly and drenched the bread. We ate like there was no tomorrow, and then sat. Too tired to sleep. Tension aches in the neck, shoulders, and thighs. (Hadn't ached like this after a flight since the early stages of VT-1). Too overwhelmed by it all to talk. Too whipped to move any more. The other fire team was still asleep, it not being time to turn over the watch. The O-in-C, met the bird when we landed. He did not pump us much, it was quiet, finally.
After a while we straggled off one by one to our racks. Tomorrow would be another day, and another Scramble to the POL at Moc Hoa, or Phuoc Xuyen, or some other nameless mud fort. 127 more days to go. Too many to even count seriously. Tomorrow we would talk about it, after we woke up. Just like last night so long ago (8 hours) after the episode at Three Sisters, we went off to sleep the sleep of the.... of the survivors. No celebration in us for this one. Not a victory. Oh it had been another kick-ass mission but not like the con game at Three Sisters. This had not been a game at all. Tomorrow we would get the results - 75 KBA confirmed with dozens of additional blood trails leading to nowhere. No word about friendly casualties. But we already knew that one American had died last night. And because of that, it had not really been a victory. For those of us manning the ramparts as U.S. forces withdrew, the only victory was in all of us getting home alive. Who wants to die covering a retreat in a losing cause.
Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips