This is the sixth and last part in a series about a minor combat engagement in South Vietnam's Mekong Delta. 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 written as prologue to this one.
Phuc Xuyen was an interesting place which demonstrated the Navy's attitude toward the war in the Delta. Every situation in this strange and unique combat zone was an original challenge. Navy solutions to these challenges should make the citizens proud. Their tax dollars were being well spent by the Navy in the Delta. Take Phuc Xuyen for example. To support riverine patrols in the Plain of Reeds required bases distributed at key points and intersections. Unfortunately, the Great Distributor of Firmament had not always provided firmament firm enough in all the right places. The Navy had to add the hand of man in a few areas.
One of the most famous examples of this improvisation was Seafloat. Seafloat was the brain child of RADM Elmo Zumwalt, COMNAVFORV. It was an effort to take the fight to the enemy's sanctuaries. The sanctuary in question was the triple canopy mangrove swamps of the extreme southern tip of the Delta. The only space in the area for a base, not under the triple canopy, was in the Song Cua Lon (Cua Lon River) itself. One day, flat barges were towed in to the heart of the swamp, lashed together to form a platform big enough to support the forces assigned, and anchored there. The surprised VC were not happy about this. After the Navy had demonstrated to the VC that it had come to stay and was not going to be evicted, insult was added to injury by hauling in enough sand and fill dirt to move the base ashore to stay, renaming it Solid Anchor. We now owned the only dry land in the area. The adventures of Seawolf Det One at Seafloat and Solid Anchor should be told by some of the guys who were there. Aside from trips down there flying SEALORDS, including my first flight in Vietnam, recounted in part two of this series, I only visited the place for a couple of weeks to cover for Det One. It was enough for me. It was James Joyce's Heart of Darkness come true. The natives were NOT friendly nor did they easily allow their hearts and minds to be won over.
Phuc Xuyen was a smaller scale project of similar imagination. At the proper location for a support base, there was no solid land and the waterway system was too narrow to allow passage of ships large enough for a similar feat of civil engineering as was performed at Solid Anchor. Never mind, the base did not need to be as big as Solid Anchor. It only needed modest space and facilities, so the Navy built the entire base on stilts above the semi-drowned grass.
Being a river patrol base, it featured a landing dock built on pilings parallel to the canal. On this part of the platform complex, was perched a central machine shop/barracks hut. The lower half consisted of great squared logs soaked in creosote for protection, while the upper half was of plywood and screen windows as a concession to habitability. The entire dock area was covered with a tin patio roof to repel the sun. Radiating out from this central platform were walkways on stilts which led to two helo platforms, each just big enough for one medium helicopter. The tail of our birds hung out over the water-grass. There was just room to get out of a Huey without falling over the side into the barbed wire which was spread under the platforms in a thicket out to fifty yards beyond the platforms. There were no railings.
In another direction from the central dock was another creosote bunker, this one entirely of logs, including the roof; sleeping quarters for visiting flight crews. Slept 8 tightly and miserably, about like berthing spaces on a ship. It had rifle slots in the walls like an old frontier blockhouse, since it more or less formed part of the perimeter. Like? Heck, it WAS a frontier blockhouse! There were several smaller blockhouses on pilings which served as sentry posts connected to the other platforms with their own elevated walkways. The outer perimeter was studded with poles holding floodlights and Claymore mines, and was liberally laced with barbed wire concertina.
The det would often stage out of Phuc Xuyen at night because it was nearer to the center of the AO. The YRBM-21 was over on the Mekong river at the western edge. We tried to be somewhat random in our visits, but were there about every fourth duty night on the average. The worst part about Phuc Xuyen, however, was the "run" to the helicopters for a scramble. No railings, remember. The walkways were best described as first cousin to Corduroy roads. The cross boards were unfinished and splintered badly from the sun. About an inch between each six or seven-inch-wide planks. They were not level. Running in the dark was suicidal. If you didn't fall over the side into the wire, you would at least make a two point landing on your hands if (when) you tripped over an uneven section. All aircrew put on their gloves before leaving the blockhouse during a scramble, and WALKED (quickly) to the aircraft.
An unpleasant feature was the overpowering stench of creosote. Like sleeping in the telephone company's pole storage facility. We never stayed long enough to get used to it. Another unpleasant feature was no showers. All water was barged in. Therefore the locals bathed in the canal. We, on the other hand would gut it out rather than venture into the murky waters. Leeches you know. And the alert. Nobody wanted to risk being caught naked in the canal when scrambled. On the positive side, there were no bugs at Phuc Xuyen, even in the air. Thank the creosote for that too. Learn to take the good with the bad.
Aviation fuel was barged in along with rockets and ammunition, water and supplies. The fueling and fire-fighting "system"consisted of several common parts. Two hoses led to a handy-billy pump and Y-gate on the dock, one from the fuel barge, and one from the canal. Turn the valve one way and water flowed from the canal to the helo platforms for fire fighting. Purge the line, and turn the valve the other way and fuel flowed from the fuel barge to the platforms for fueling. Because of this primitive arrangement, we never returned to Phuc Xuyen for a hot refuel. It took too long to land with water in the hose ready for a crash, purge the hose, refuel, purge the hose, charge it with water for the takeoff, and launch. All this concern with fire sounds rather sissy compared to other "chances" we took, but when you are flying from a wooden runway, you are careful with fire and don't play with matches. We took calculated risks in HA(L)-3, but tried to minimize the stupid chances. We couldn't entirely eliminate them. It is impossible to eradicate the "John Wayne" in the American male. Mix guns, liquor, and war, with the Hollywood diet of patriotic war movies spawned in the fifties, and you have a potent and volatile brew.
While I was on Det Nine, an Army H-57 with a general aboard, flamed out after takeoff and went into the canal. When the bird was salvaged, they found that it had been topped off with canal water. Nobody was hurt, thank goodness, and the inquiry "found" that the crewman had not been as careful verifying the procedures plainly painted on the sign nailed to the hose box. We ALWAYS took three fuel samples at Phuc Xuyen, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of refueling, because the troops at Phuc Xuyen took jealous pride in running their rube goldberg fueling/fire fighting lashup themselves. And, you guessed it, after being assured that the settings were right, (for they had checked before), we once found that our THIRD fuel sample showed that the good fuel in the hose, (which ran some distance from the barge across the walkways to the helo platform) revealed that, apparently, the helo had developed a severe case of disgusting greenish-brown congestive phlegm in large globules where once had flowed pure, clean (mostly), straw-colored jet engine nectar.
We wondered after that incident, if the army crewman had really been guilty of anything more than trusting the local Texaco distributor a little too much. In the interests of interservice cooperation and harmony, we decided not to revisit the issue. After all, nobody had been hurt, and the general only had one leech on him. The boys at Phuc Xuyen were properly chastised for being careless, but apparently it made little impression on them (our incident followed only a few weeks later). They didn't see generals often, and they were, after all, only Army. We, on the other hand, were regular visitors, were Navy, AND were their air support if anything ever happened. We put on a little firepower demonstration close aboard their wire after we had cleaned and replaced the filters in the engine and the fuselage and ground turned the helo for about an hour. The boys at Phuc Xuyen were MUCH more careful about the fuel after that.
During our initial stay at Phuc Xuyen after the fight at Hoa Binh, the sentries were spooked by something they thought they detected out in the dark. We launched and expended numerous pop flares around the area in a futile attempt to detect any activity in the dark. No positive results so we forgot about it. We returned to the YRBM-21. There was a USO troupe scheduled to visit and we didn't want to miss it.
That night at the USO show, held in the enlisted club, we were kicked back enjoying a Filipino country band with four ugly, hirsute pimply musicians and two certified live female singers. Yes I said enlisted club. One of two clubs actually.
YRBM-21 was another interesting Navy solution to the problems presented by warfare in the Mekong Delta. Officially, it was a Yard Repair, Berthing, and Messing "ship", actually barge: it had no engine, being towed from site to site. Its machine shops provided all the necessary maintenance support for the riverine forces. It also easily provided the berthing and messing as the name implies. Provided specifically for the river boats, it had one shortcoming, no boat booms or docking facilities to facilitate major repair. To properly accomplish the combat mission assigned to it, boat docking facilities were required. The fix involved tying up several barges alongside the YRBM itself and using them as docking space, and as expansion of working and storage space.
There was one more characteristic of USS YRBM-21. As is clear by the title "USS", the USS YRBM-21 was a commissioned Navy ship, even if it didn't have any engines built into it. Therefore it observed the quaint regulations embraced by the Navy at the urging of the beloved Josephus Daniels regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages. To get around this chuckhole in the highway of life, recreational facilities were established on the barges which had been thoughtfully provided to expand the working and storage space required to properly accomplish the combat mission of USS YRBM-21. When it was determined that additional space was needed, and that the proper solution resided in attaching barges to the YRBM, someone must have slightly overestimated the required square footage. There was unutilized space. It was determined that the best interests of all concerned would be met by ensuring that this space be utilized for recreational facilities.
In keeping with other Navy tradition prevalent at the time, (and since sadly compromised), officers and enlisted had separate clubs. The officers "club" was the famous Last Chance Saloon, last watering hole before entering Cambodia. A booming establishment during the "Rush" of 1970, (also known to history as Nixon's invasion of the VC sanctuaries in Cambodia), it was a much quieter place when I knew it. Over the years, the clubs acquired many comforts which aided in their support of the combat mission of USS YRBM-21 and its attached riverine force boats, and Seawolf det.
There was a distant explosion while a number was being introduced by the USO band's emcee. Disconcerting. The local artillery, which was forever firing at unknown things day and night, was not usually audible when inside the club, which was buttoned up to support the pathetic efforts of a window air conditioning unit (sporting an Army serial number) to cool a full house. The emcee asked the audience "What was That?" as we Seawolves looked at each other uncomfortably. The det O-in-C, Dick Strand, quietly started for the door to check around, as one of the crowd replied to the Emcee "Don't worry, if it was anything, they would sound General Quarters.
There followed a ringing metallic crash, slightly muffled by the walls of the club. As we all looked at each other, and some of the Seawolves rose from their seats, the GQ alarm sounded.
General Quarters! General Quarters!
All hands man your battle stations!
Scramble Seawolves! Scramble Seawolves!
We poured out of the club and ran for the birds up on the roof of the YRBM with the rest of the crowd just behind. The Seawolves were in hot pursuit of me as I was close on the heels of one of my gunners. Others spread out in different directions running to gun positions and manning patrol boats and LCM's.
As I was climbing the ladder to the flight deck with my gunners above me just stepping onto the flight deck beside the helicopter, there was a flash above me and the gunner flew over my head somersaulting back down to the steel deck below. I felt the heat and the pressure but was protected from any real blast or shrapnel by being just below the level of the flight deck. I bolted up the ladder, confronting what had been MY helo, and saw that the explosion had destroyed the nose of the aircraft. I wasn't going anywhere in THAT bird tonight.
The other duty crew ran past and the second helo was airborne within a minute. Guns were popping from fighting positions on the YRBM and engines were roaring from boats casting off and charging full throttle for the dikes across from the YRBM. There was nothing for me to do but get below and check on the gunner. He wasn't down there. Somebody must have already taken him to sick bay. That was encouraging, I thought he might have been killed, either by the shell or by the fall; it was about fifteen feet from the flight deck to the steel deck below.
The attack was over, the VC had set up a 75mm recoilless rifle on the bank and had let fly at the YRBM. First round was an over which we had heard as the distant explosion when it hit the water several hundred yards beyond the ship. Second round had hit the ship below my helicopter and done some material mayhem in the wardroom. That was the muffled ringer. Third and last round had trashed MY helo. Had we been a few seconds faster, I would have been sitting in the pilots seat when the nose was blown the shreds.
I found my gunner manning a ship fifty. The crew deferred to him because he was a Seawolf gunner, and because he was pissed! His shirt was rags, but HE WAS UNHURT. Not a scratch, not a broken bone. The shell had blown him off his feet without touching him with any shrapnel. He landed below among the people at the bottom of the ladder who had graciously broken his fall. Not by consent, or even reflex, but by presence. Sometimes mere presence is enough. He was mad because he wasn't going to get a Purple Heart, and because he felt it was somehow unfair of the enemy to shoot at him when he was on the ground. He was, after all, an aviator. There is some logic there somewhere. I often thought it would look good to have a Purple Heart, and I sometimes secretly wanted one. But then I would sober up. You didn't have to live through your wound to get a Purple Heart, the downside to the potential respect it might command hanging on your uniform. In a helicopter, picking up a Purple Heart is more a matter of luck than it is on the ground. Oh sure, you can minimize the risk but not as much as a skillful infantryman can.
Concurrent with the hustle to get our dead aircraft replaced, which took one day (the army "hooked" the carcass off the next day to clear the flight deck), we convened for a sober review of the situation. This attack on the YRBM was unprecedented in the memory of the present company. Similar attacks may have occurred on similar units in the past, but this was a definite escalation to the "normal" operations in the area. Was it related to the ass-kicking the VC had received at Hoa Binh? Was it an attack on the YRBM or on the det? We took it as an attack on the det because the YRBM was basically a laissez faire type of unit, other than spawning river patrol boats and Seawolves. We were flattered. We must have truly hurt them last week. This was better than the $5000 price on our heads because this was directed at US. The bounty on the other hand was a "battle streamer" enjoyed collectively by current Seawolves but earned by earlier Seawolves during the bad old days.
After the smug congratulations were over, we addressed the problem in a different light. This destruction of Navy (O.K., O.K., ARMY) property was bad for the image, and besides, a guy could get hurt. This here indiscriminate shooting of Seawolves would just naturally have to stop! What to do. The protection of an afloat base in the broad river also meant the exposure to a covert approach from the scrub growth behind the river dikes to a firing position with a clear field of fire at the boat. How were we going to stop these guys when we could get no warning of their presence. We might have to sit and take it first before we could take off and engage the enemy. And you know how we felt about that. We didn't want a fair fight except when absolutely necessary. This was altogether different from scrambling to assist somebody else who had so thoughtfully provided the trigger to launch us from our safe base to fly over to somebody else's fight.
Fast action by somebody at the home squadron produced some relief. An unknown agency in-country was "marketing" some kind of seismic sensor code-named Duffle Bag. Duffle bags were air-dropped gizmos which buried themselves in the soil leaving only an array of antennae above the ground which were foliated like the fake plants today frequently encountered in restaurants. Who knows, maybe fake restaurant vegetation is an outgrowth of duffle bag technology from Vietnam, a positive result of the war. Anyway, they were monitored somehow, probably by an aircraft orbiting somewhere, which would detect footsteps, yes footsteps, and report the location. We had worked with these before. We would get a call to go to some coordinates somewhere and blind fire a rocket. They would adjust fire based on locating the impact of the rocket, and would also correct fire depending on the direction that the "footsteps" went. I hope they could tell man from animal. The areas were always located where friendly people were not allowed and the missions were usually at night when it was definite that no friendlies were out and about.
We were told that a screen of duffle bag sensors had been dropped to cover the approaches to our part of the river from the scrub beyond the rice paddies lining the East banks. So much for that part. Now we needed a plan to react. We were afraid that our starting engines could be enough to spook the approaching VC, and we didn't dare wait until they were set up. So we worked out a plan with Det 5 which was located just to the west about 20 klics (20,000 meters-10 miles).
If alerted by duffle bag, we would scramble Det 5 who would approach the YRBM low level from the West to minimize detection until the last minute, pop up at the river bank and immediately dive into a rocket run on the area of the rice paddies beyond the dike. They would hit the area with nails (fleshettes). As they approached the pop-up point, their radio call would be our signal to start engines, being already strapped in. We would immediately launch (about thirty seconds from coming hot on the starter-no exaggeration-we were fast) and roll in behind them with our own nails. They would augment their nails with Willy Peter (white phosphorous) smokes to mark where their nails had gone so we would cover a different area with our nails and Willy Pete. Subsequent runs would expand on the initial salvo.
A week passed. Then one night, which featured a near-daylight full moon, we were called by the duffle bag guys. A group of people was coming over the border (from Cambodia) approaching the rice paddies from the scrub. They provided the coordinates. We scrambled Det 5 and manned up. We sat there, strapped in, imagining the VC setting up their 75mm recoilless rifle on the river bank and sighting in on the noses of our helos. They had found the range the other night and we could expect the first round to be on target tonight, not the third. Seven long, long, minutes later, at Det 5's inbound radio call, we hit the starters with relief, agitated relief. There is hardly anything worse than waiting for combat to start when you are certain it is coming, unless you are a dullard with absolutely NO imagination whatsoever. Off we scrambled, forming on Det Five who was already rolling inbound on their second run. We made two runs and took no return fire. We checked in with the duffle bag guys, who reported that they had lost track on the foot traffic but had noted the rockets hitting the ground. Was it a false alarm? Were we seeing goblins in the dark after being hit by that 75mm recoilless rifle? Had we blown away some stray water buffalo?
Next morning a Ruff Puff sweep found seven dead VC and two mortars in the middle of one of the paddies. Riddled with nails. They had brought along twenty rounds. Escalation from three rounds of recoilless rifle. Must have got them all or the survivors would have at least tried to hide the mortars, even if they couldn't carry them off. That was the last time anybody messed with the YRBM. And I believe that was the last shooting related to the fight for Hoa Binh outpost. It was an interesting series of actions. Like many other war stories from the unwritten history of HA(L)-3. Truth stranger than fiction. A proud and successful page in the history of the U.S. Navy.
Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips