Scramble Seawolves! Part 7

Larry Bradshaw

by Tom Phillips, Seawolf 98 | Reprinted with permission

A DECISION I SHALL ALWAYS REGRET
This article is another reminiscence of operations of the Seawolves of HA(L)-3, Navy Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 3, during the Vietnam War. For a more detailed description of tactics, equipment, and concepts of operations, you might read the "Scramble Seawolves!" articles which have preceded this one.

After the excitement at Hoa Binh outpost, (related in previous installments of this periodical) things quieted down somewhat in the Plain of Reeds, and the "Master Strategists" decided that winning the hearts and minds of the local citizens of the Plain could continue without the services of Det Nine. Dets Five and Four, which flanked the Plain of Reeds AO could split it between them for the time being. Mighty Det Nine was needed elsewhere; our job here was done. So the "Delta Nomads" said goodbye to the YRBM-21, packed their tents, er seabags, and once again stole into the night. Actually we flew away in broad daylight, with our friends, from the crew of YRBM-21 and the USN advisors from the Cambodian Navy river patrol boats which were also hosted, as we were, by the versatile YRBM, gathered on the flight deck. They followed the new Vietnam tradition of igniting several colored smoke marker grenades to billow forth pleasing pastel clouds in a touching (well colorful anyway) farewell, as the two tired old Bravos made a farewell low pass in parade formation (the only time I can remember flying parade the whole year I was there).

Lest this occasion become too solemn and an embarassing tear be shed by some big tough river warrior, the gunners in the wing helicopter had thoughtfully shrugged out of their flight suits, lowered their shorts, and mooned the waving sailors as the fire team flew past. It was amusing to watch the reaction as many of the assembled group frantically attempt to reply in kind before we flew out of sight. They tried, but the effect was more like watching a sudden mass affliction of Saint Vitus dance, and the after effect must have been interesting as they stood there with pants around their ankles, gagging and choking amidst the mixing clouds of decorator colors as the helicopters disappeared from sight and the characteristic Huey thump-thump-thump faded away. We had really caught them with their pants up. Our new AO was down on the coast at the mouths of the Mekong and Bassac Rivers. The area was quite different from the Plain of Reeds. Instead of generally open country of drowned grass and rice paddies and canals, the area was wild second growth mangrove swamp, laced with creeks, small twisting rivers, and some canals. Not the vast triple canopy mangrove of the U Minh Forest or the Solid Anchor area down at the southern tip of the Delta, but more of a single canopy scrub bush. Water was still the primary mode of transportation in the area, with the land being basically mud most of the year. It was not densely populated, and in fact, much of the area was not authorized for habitation by the Saigon government. It was sprinkled with "free fire zones" generally conforming to the uncultivated mangrove areas which lined the coast, the legitimately populated areas usually started farther inland in the arable land beyond the coastal swamps. Anyone found in a free fire zone was considered as hostile and could be taken under fire without specific permission from the local Vietnamese province chief's headquarters, who was otherwise the normal clearance authority.

Our two-plane Det was typical of the eight dets in the squadron. Eight pilots and eight gunner-mechs. The pilots included the det O-in-C, a Commander, the assistant O-in-C, a Lieutenant, another Lieutenant, and five Jaygees. Of the eight pilots, two were qualified FTL's (Fire Team Leaders, authorized to lead and employ the two-helicopter fire team in combat), two were qualified as AHACs (attack helicopter aircraft commanders, authorized to command an attack helicopter flying as the trail aircraft of the fire team under the direction of the FTL), and four were qualified as copilots (two lead ship copilots, responsible for the navigation of the fire team, and two trail ship copilots, in the learning seat). Together they formed the crews of two fire teams, each fire team consisting of an FTL and lead co-pilot in the lead helicopter, and an AHAC and trail co-pilot in the trail helicopter. In this configuration, we could alternate duty continuously, 24 hours on and 24 hours off. Combat qualifications depended on combat experience, not total flight experience, although the OPNAV requirement for HAC of 500 total hours still applied. It took a minimum of 100 hours in-country to be eligible for AHAC, and after qualifying as an AHAC, it took a further minimum of 100 hours as an AHAC to be eligible for FTL. No exceptions. No matter how many total hours you had from other non-combat fleet tours elsewhere. And you had to be recommended.

As a result of these strict rules and the vagaries of the rotation of personnel in Det Nine at the time, the det combat leaders, the two FTL's, were Jaygees. Of the second echelon, the AHAC's, one was also a Jaygee and the other was a Lieutenant. The O-in-C and the assistant O-in-C were both still only qualified as co-pilots; they had plenty of total hours, but didn't have enough hours in-country to qualify as AHAC yet. The Jaygee AHAC had enough hours in-country, but didn't have enough hours as an AHAC to be eligible for FTL yet. The Lieutenant AHAC had enough total hours and enough hours as an AHAC but had not yet been recommended for FTL.

This made for an interesting situation in which a Jaygee FTL could have a Commander copilot, who was his O-in-C, or a Lieutenant copilot, who was assistant O-in-C. It also made it interesting for the young FTL's because recommendations for AHAC and FTL advancement, which were sent to the squadron commanding officer, a Captain, for approval, but which originated with the O-in-C, a Commander, had to have the endorsements of all the qualified FTL's of the Det, in our case at the time, two Jaygees. That's how Ian Refo, the other Jaygee FTL, and I found ourselves in the O-in-C's stateroom discussing the recommendation of Lt Max Prudence for Fire Team Leader with the Commander. (Do I have to tell you that's not his real name?) The O-in-C wanted our endorsement on Max's recommendation for FTL so the squadron check ride could be scheduled. The O-in-C, being new to the squadron and to combat, had taken his time observing Max before taking the important step of recommending him for FTL. I'm sure he would have preferred to have waited to qualify as AHAC at least before making a recommendation, but, realizing that Prudence was about to rotate out of the Det, he wanted to get him his qualification as FTL before he left, probably as a goodbye kiss. Max wanted it too, but he wasn't pushing real hard. Ian and I had discussed this question among ourselves on several occasions. I was actually dreading this meeting with the new O-in-C. The previous O-in-C, a Commander, who was also an experienced FTL, would have taken all the real responsibility for the recommendation when co-signing with a couple of Jaygees. But now the situation was different. The only FTL endorsements would be by us Jaygees and, you see, I was uncomfortable recommending Max, and Ian felt the same way. We were feeling the heat.

Refo and I thought alike in all things. Tactics, safety, liberty, everything. And we shared a visceral understanding that something wasn't quite right with Max when it came to him being an FTL. He was a good guy, really nice. Polite, cheerful, mature, thoughtful, earnest, a stickler for administrative detail, took care of the men, studied the NATOPS. He was a safe pilot, a careful pilot, a prudent pilot. He had had no problems as an AHAC. He was no kid, old for a Lieutenant, having been a high school teacher for a few years before entering OCS. Did a squadron tour somewhere, and went to the training command as an instructor. No problems there. Had a thousand combat-free hours over south Alabama. Yet there was something.....

"O.K. guys, what exactly is it? What's wrong?" asked the O-in-C when we hesitated when asked for our recommendation, a routine request in the mind of the O-in-C.

"I can't express it Boss, it's just that something's just not right. I know it... but I can't explain it." offered Ian. Great. That's what I was going to say.

"Yeah." I added hopefully.

"Well, you're going to have to do better than that. If you have reservations, give me something concrete. You guys have known him for five or six months, and I've only known him for a few weeks. He seems all right to me. He's plenty safe, he's prudent, he never takes any chances that I can see." "Nothing like that Boss. I can't point out a specific thing. He doesn't do anything wrong. He doesn't make mistakes. I've got no problems with him as an AHAC. He's always where he's supposed to be. He always does what's expected and what he's told." I said forlornly.

"Yeah." Refo added. Thanks Ian.

"Do you guys have a personal problem with him. He seems like a real gentleman, although a little dull I must say. Not your typical naval aviator, and certainly not your typical Seawolf j.o.; lucky for him." chuckled the O-in-C. He was trying to keep it relaxed. "Well he doesn't seem to fit the mold all right, but there isn't really a mold. I think it's that he isn't aggressive enough Boss. You know what I mean? Not reckless aggressive, but assertive and decisive aggressive, right Tom?"

"That's it Boss. I just don't have the feeling that he has the take charge instinct to be a good FTL."

"Well I certainly can't write that. If you guys can't come up with something more substantive that this you'll have to endorse him." said the O-in-C.

"Wait a minute Commander," pleaded Ian, in his naivete of the inner workings of the Navy system, "you can't make us do this if we don't think it's right, can you?"

"Whoa mister, ease off. We're not talking about you endorsing an incompetent! You guys said he's safe, just not a steely-eyed go-to-hell warrior like yourselves! He may not be the best FTL that ever pulled on a zoom-bag, but he'll be safe. He may not write new chapters in the tactics book, but he'll stick to the ones that are already written.

"If he doesn't get qualified as an FTL, how do you think it will look on his record? It'll be a stake through his heart professionally, especially with the time he's had on det."

Here, at last, was the real problem. It was common knowledge in the squadron that guys get pulled in from det early if they weren't going to make FTL. In the case of the more senior officers, the reassignment is couched in terms of "the needs of the squadron" as a way to avoid an embarrassment if they aren't going to be recommended for the qual. After all these are career officers, and when they get back to the "real" Navy, this qual won't mean much since they'll never fly this type mission again. A tour in HA(L)-3 was a one-time anomaly in the career path before getting back to one of the many normal fleet squadrons doing ASW or logistics. The prevailing philosophy seemed to be that it could help your career to do well in combat, but it shouldn't hurt your career if you don't. No sense ruining a good officer just because he can't hack it in combat. After all, the "real" Navy isn't about combat, is it?

The last O-in-C had rotated back to the "land of the big PX" without recommending Prudence for FTL. He hadn't rejected him, he had just dodged the decision.

"The last O-in-C must have thought he'd make it, or he wouldn't have left him hung out to dry." added the O-in-C.

"Sorry Boss, I didn't think of it like that." said Ian. We looked at each other miserably. Silence.

After a few moments, which seemed like an eternity, the O-in-C said, "Look fellas, I think you may be taking this recommendation thing too seriously, after all, it's the first one for both of you. Don't get me wrong, this is serious business all right, but he's got a couple of thousand hours fer crissakes. Besides, he won't be an FTL for long anyway. How about if I take my time with the recommendation and not push real hard to get the FTL check scheduled in a hurry. We'll run the clock out on this thing so that he'll get his FTL check, but get pulled back to Binh Thuy right away so he'll never have to fly as an FTL? He's covered for his FITREP, and there's no chance of anything going wrong. This is the way it's done boys. You don't crucify a guy if there's no hard evidence against him, that's not fair to him. He's played the game well enough to get by, although he'll never be the ace of the base. Meantime, we'll make sure he gets some hops in the lead."

Ian and I looked at each other and rose to the bait. The perfect solution, we thought. Everybody gets what they want with no risk and no harm done. We won't have to face up to a real tough decision, we can dodge it with some creative scheduling sleight of hand.

Max got his FTL check ride, a pro forma thing. He flew a training mission with an experienced FTL, a LCDR finishing his year in Binh Thuy as the squadron FTL check pilot. He passed with no comments that we ever heard. After all, when the det FTL's unanimously recommend a man, the check ride is a mere formality covering the squadron's six, IAW the procedures of the U.S. Navy, Incorporated. Of course, we were not privy to the check ride report, or to the thoughts of the check ride pilot, a guy we didn't know, and a LCDR who owed no explanation to a couple of Jaygees. I have no idea whether the O-in-C confided anything to the check pilot about our reservations. In any case, Lt Prudence passed the simulated situations of the FTL check.

It was a couple of days later, and a beautiful day at that, like Pensacola in the late summer, only hotter. Lt Prudence was scheduled to go in to Binh Thuy tomorrow and he wasn't scheduled to fly today. But Max wanted desperately to fly at least one hop as an FTL and he begged the O-in-C to let him take out a patrol. The first we heard about it was when the O-in-C came in and told me that Max was taking out a training hop that afternoon rather than me taking out the normal patrol. I looked him in the eyes. The eyes said that a training hop in broad daylight was not really a violation of the deal, was it? The shrug said that it was impossible to say no gracefully. And it really wasn't was it. I should have known this would happen. Max would want to fly a mission. So would anybody. Nobody could just walk away, not if he had any manhood whatsoever. What harm could befall an innocent daylight training hop? Steve Hanvey would be the trail AHAC. That was good, he had a lot of experience, was as good as they came, and would keep Max's ass out of trouble.

My suggestion that Ian or I fly his trail was quickly dismissed since it wouldn't really be his flight under those conditions, would it.

They were to go into one of the free fire zones on the coast to the north of the ship and let the new gunners burn a thousand rounds each to continue building up their skills, and return to the LST well before dark. Both helicopters took an extra gunner trainee, for a crew of five instead of the normal four. They launched. One plus three zero to splash. Nobody expected any opposition. Just bust a bunker or two, or a few sampans if they could flush them in the free fire zone, or if no hard targets presented themselves, at least shoot up the vegetation to work on crew coordination, fire discipline, marking targets, adjusting fire to target, and aircraft tactics.

Ian and I adjourned to the LST's wardroom and set up for the afternoon movie. The LST was a laid back sort of a place, swinging around the hook day in and day out, occasionally conducting naval gunfire H & I missions (harassment and interdiction) with their 3-inch fifty dual purpose guns, against squares of jungle selected by some "higher intelligence" somewhere.

Today's movie was graced by the presence of Sandy Purdy, a SEAL, who was advisor to a Biet Hai (South Vietnamese SEAL) outfit operating from the LST temporarily while recuperating from some classified operations "farther north". (Much farther North) His support boat, a Nasty class PG was tied up alongside. It was a very dark green boat that looked like a World War II PT boat without the torpedo tubes. Covered with 20mm and 40mm guns.

All was calm, the popcorn and cokes were in abundance, and the movie was in its last reel, when the O-in-C came in and got me and Ian. The fire team was having trouble getting back to the ship. We ran to the bridge, which acted as the tower during flight ops, and where the land/launch radio frequency was patched. Outside the bridge windows, rain came down like the proverbial "cow pissin' on the flat rock" as the duty afternoon thunderstorm passed over the ship. Not an unusual occurrence this time of year, but nevertheless a problem for the fire team since the LST had no NAVAIDS except an FM radio frequency which could be used as a homer for an ADF-type approach; a very, very, squirrely ADF. It was only a minor annoyance, however; they would have to go to a runway ashore until the rain blew over. Should be no problem. I looked at my watch and tried to remember when they had launched exactly. It had been at least an hour ago. We ran no published flight schedule so a precise launch time was not in hard copy anywhere. I grabbed the transceiver.

"Seawolf Nine-two, Seawolf Nine-eight, say your state." First things first.

"Nine-eight, Nine-two, I'm about zero plus two zero. We can't break out at your house and are diverting to Sa Dec. Break, Nine-three say your state." came the calm reply from Max Prudence.

"Roger, zero plus one five." came a less calm response from Steve Hanvey. "Nine-two, I don't think we can make Sa Dec, over."

"Nine-eight, this is Nine-two, say the visibility there. Any sign of a break?"

"Negative Nine-two. No sign of light in any direction."

"O.K., we're in the clear west of the ship, and the only bad weather is that squall overhead your position. We're going to Sa Dec. Copy Nine-three?" Steve Rogered. Ian, standing beside me, said,

"Steve's right, they don't have the fuel to make Sa Dec." Unsaid was the fact that between the coast and Sa Dec, the nearest friendly field, was a free fire zone and not a single friendly outpost.

They're going to have to land in hostile territory, or risk ditching at sea trying to break out at the LST! How could this be happening? We stood there in frustration, unable to do anything to help. The ship was at anchor and couldn't get underway to clear the weather soon enough to help the fire team.

What had happened?

Here's the story. The fire team reconned the area, found nothing of any great import, went ahead with the training strike on likely target areas, receiving no return fire. They proceeded back to the ship along the coast with plenty of fuel. In the direction of the ship's anchorage, there was an ugly grey squall. Some others on the distant horizon, but essentially the weather was fine. Puffy white cumulo-nimbus floating in blue skies. Just like Pensacola in the summer. Seductive. Max lead the fire team toward the squall.

Steve recommended that they divert to Sa Dec and let the weather clear. Prudence replied that they could go around the squall, which admittedly did look small, and get to the ship on the other side. He didn't want to divert. He was expected to recover aboard and it was his first FTL flight. Nor did he want to risk a night recovery. Night recoveries were ops normal, but why do one if you didn't have to? Prudent enough. Steve replied that if they weren't going to divert, then they should penetrate the squall, following the homer. Negative. Prudence saw no reason to fly through the squall when they could go around it. They circumnavigated the squall to the other side and found no LST, only ocean. The squall was bigger than Prudence had expected.

Prudence then decided to penetrate the squall from the seaward side. Steve advised that they divert to Sa Dec now that it was clear that the ship was in the squall. Prudence replied that Sa Dec was in the general direction of the LST, and through the squall anyway, so they would make one try for the ship. It wouldn't take up much time and they might break out. They penetrated at 100 feet, just above masthead height, hoping to get a visual on the ship. They did not break out. When the needle indicated that they had passed the ship, Max turned in the direction of the needle over Steve's objection. They followed the needle through the stormy rain until they got "station passage" again without sighting the ship.

Now Max decided to head for shore. They were already emergency fuel for a bingo to Sa Dec. This is when we got on the radios with them. They headed for the beach. I got on the HF radio and scrambled Det Six from Dong Tam, the nearest possible help, about 30 minutes flying time away. It's all we could do as disaster approached inexorably like a nightmare monster, bent on devouring you while you were mired in muck unable to run.

Approaching the coast, Max finally realized that they weren't going to make it to Sa Dec. They flew over a sand bar about 1000 yards from the shore line and Steve suggested that they land there rather than in hostile territory. Prudence countered that the sand bar was only uncovered at low tide. If they landed there, the tide might come in before they could get fuel and get away. Time and tides wait for no man.....

Back on the LST, we monitored this exchange and chimed in that we were pumping JP into drums which we would then load into a landing craft for delivery to the aircraft. It would take a couple of hours to reach them, but we'd beat the tide. Sandy mustered his Biet Hai aboard the Nasty boat and shoved off to lend support in whatever way they could. The LST manned the three-inch fifties, although they would be of little help until someone arrived to spot for them.

Prudence decided to forego the sand bar and land on the coast. There was a break in the normal mangrove which lined the coast in this area, a wide section of beach, exposed by the low tide where they could land with their backs to the sea so they couldn't be surrounded, and with access from the sea for the landing craft with the fuel and the Nasty boat. Det Six was on the way and Det Two had also scrambled from Na Bhe just in case. Never a problem getting support when there were Americans in trouble. It wouldn't be long before the problem would be solved.

Steve suggested a spot with some overgrown and neglected old rice paddies behind a large natural berm which ran parallel to the surf line and separated the wide beach from the paddies. The coast was ruler straight in this area as was the berm. Max acknowledged and began his approach to land. He was approaching the beach adjacent to where a creek emptied into the sea. Steve thought that the creek was a weakness rather than a strength to a defensive position and suggested they stay away from that creek mouth. But Max was on final and not answering, so Steve followed him in to an uneventful landing on the sand.

The ten crew members deployed along the high berm in a defensive line, the gunners pulling their M-60's from the door mounts, and the pilots with their hand-held personal weapons. Plenty of fire power to defend a position offering good cover indefinitely.

No sooner had they settled down to wait than a rifle shot rang out. Someone from across the paddies was shooting at them. Everybody hunkered down and two of the gunners returned a few bursts of M-60 fire to deter the enthusiasm of the sniper. The sniper was no real threat from the other side of the paddy expanse, a good 300-400 yards, other than the fact that it was real ammunition being fired in their direction. The height of the berm protected the helicopters from direct fire and the berm was good cover for the men. The whole situation was still damned uncomfortable. Worse than taking heavy fire while flying. The ground was not their element.

The first sniper was joined by several others farther down the tree line across the paddy. Hmmm, not so good, but still only an irritant. (Where the hell did they come from so fast?) The fire was converging on their position. Max ordered two men to extend their flank down the berm line to the left to keep the snipers from trying to cross the paddies and get to the berm. A gunners and a copilot scuttled down the beach below the crest of the berm for a hundred yards and cranked a few rounds across the paddy at the tree line.

Then shots started to come from down the beach to the right, from across the creek mouth. They couldn't extend in that direction to protect their flank. Suddenly the berm did not hold the protection it held earlier. The men were safe enough if they stayed in the folds of the berm, but they were essentially pinned down there by crossfire. Worse still, the helicopters themselves were exposed and under fire from the shooters to the right, across the creek where they couldn't be driven away. Things were getting progressively worse. Where were all these guys coming from anyway? Help was enroute but far, far, away.

The snipers across the paddies were joined by machine gun fire and automatic weapons fire. Clearly there were now at least a dozen shooters and the volume of incoming fire was increasing. With the helicopters now under direct fire from down the beach in two directions, Max and Steve began to discuss a retreat to the sandbar before the birds were knocked out and that option was eliminated. The distant sand bar was starting to look real good. Suddenly, a mortar shell exploded down the beach about forty yards. What the heck was going on? They seem to have landed right in the middle of some local VC unit, complete with supporting arms weapons. All this had happened in the space of fifteen minutes or so.

Automatic weapons fire increased in volume. Crossfire from the right was pinning them to the berm. Another mortar round hit, closer than the first by twenty yards and out in the surf. That did it! Time to get the hell out of there. Max and Steve would start engines while the others covered them. As soon as the rotors were turning, everyone would sprint to the helicopters and jump in. As soon as all were aboard, they would launch and fly out to the sand bar and land before they ran out of fuel. The flankers were called in and the gunners shifted the bulk of their fire to the beach on the right to cover the pilots.

Max and Steve took off running through the deep sand, possibly thinking of the sand pit portion of the obstacle course back at Pensacola. Did the designers of that sadistic pit foresee naval aviators in this type of predicament? But this Vietnam version of the O-course had the added feature of small arms fire snapping at them. Again the sensation of slow motion. Trying to get up speed while running in flight boots in deep sand. Hollywood zig-zagging was clearly a useless idea. Just pump those legs and grit those teeth. Fifty yards in the open.........

 

Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips