“Goooooood Morning, Vietnam!”
This is the opening line from the, at times, hilarious 1987 Robin Williams movie of the same name which goes on to say it’s “time to rock it from the Delta to the DMZ”. Vietnam was called the “First Helicopter War” and from the “Delta to the DMZ” the image of a helicopter dropping troops in an LZ (landing zone) has become the iconic symbol of the Vietnam War. I served in Vietnam from May 1971 to May 1972 and I’m not sure how far I’ll go with essays about my experiences there, but I do think the particular mission I was a part of and the way it was executed might interest pilots of the post-Vietnam era.
My unit in Vietnam was the 57th Assault Helicopter Company, callsign “Gladiators”, located the Central Highlands city of Plieku (called “Rocket City” because of all the 122mm rockets launched at the city’s US bases). The 57th was part of a very unique mission during the Vietnam War that remained classified until the 1990s. Every day just after first light one of our two platoons would send six UH-1H (Huey) helicopters, each with a crew of four (two pilots, a crew chief and a door gunner) along with 4 Cobra (AH-1G) gunships from the 361st Aerial Weapons Company, callsign “Pink Panthers”, on a 30 mile flight north to a private compound on the southern outskirts of the city of Kontum. Leaving the door gunners and crew chiefs to mind the aircraft, the pilots descended 30 feet down a staircase to a very un-Vietnam like, finely furnished, wood paneled underground briefing room equipped with cushy chairs and a large floor to ceiling tactical map of the tri-border (Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia). Here we would receive a “secret” briefing on the day’s mission from a US Army Special Forces officer.
The 57th and the 361st provided part of the aviation support for MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group). MACV-SOG’s mission consisted of sending small long range reconnaissance teams across the border into Laos or Cambodia to gather intelligence about North Vietnam Army (NVA) activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the main artery used by North Vietnam to move troops, equipment and supplies into the central and southern parts of South Vietnam. By using Laos and Cambodia on Vietnam’s western border they avoided the large US Military buildups located throughout South Vietnam. The “Trail” was just that – a trail or trails forming a network of small dirt roads, foot and bicycle paths camouflaged by the thick triple canopy jungle. SOG’s mission was to conduct these covert
unconventional warfare operations by inserting these small teams along the trail to assess troop/equipment movement down the trail, select targets for future B-52 bombing missions, perhaps a “prisoner snatch” for interrogation and every once in a while, the use of larger teams to attack suspected POW (Prisoner of War) camps or search for downed pilots. SOG’s activities remained highly classified until the early 1990s and in 2001 it received a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest military award for a combat unit. During its operational years from 1964-1972, 13 Medals of Honor and 22 Distinguished Service Crosses (second highest award for valor) were awarded for actions during SOG operations. These guys were true warriors. To quote SOG Medal of Honor recipient Frank Millar “We gathered intelligence and killed human beings under extremely hazardous and adverse conditions.” SOG based these secret activities out of three locations in South Vietnam: Command and Control-South (CCS) out of Bam Me Thout, Command and Control-Central (CCC) out of Kontum and Command and Control-North out of Da Nang. Inserting and extracting the teams is where we came in. Operating out of CCC’s base in Kontum, most of our missions were 20-50 miles inside southern Laos where, at the time, I thought we weren’t supposed to be.
Additional aviation support consisted of an Air Force Forward Air Controller or FAC flying an O-2A (the military version of the Cessna 337 Skymaster) whose callsign was “Covey”. Covey’s job was to coordinate all the multi service air assets with the team on the ground. Lastly, two either Navy A-7s Corsairs or Air Force F-4 Phantoms were part of the mission to provide close air support if needed. We called the A-7s and F-4s the “Fast Movers” as their callsigns changed depending on who had the mission on a particular day, however, one I’ll always remember was an F-4 pilot called “Iceman”. At the start of each bombing run, he’d blast out in a loud baritone voice over the radio “The Iceman cometh!”
As I mentioned, our mission was mainly insertions and extractions of the recon teams. However, we also had resupply missions to a secret radio relay site located about 15 miles inside Laos called “Leghorn” and visual reconnaissance missions in Laos to look for future insertion points. Leghorn (formal name Golf-5 Radio Relay Site) was an incredible place located atop the sheer walls of a steep ridgeline 1000 feet above the Attapeu Valley in southeastern Laos. The site enabled the recon teams to stay in radio contact with CCC 24 hours a day and was originally intended to be temporary but proved so successful it was maintained for five years despite numerous attempts by the NVA to dislodge it.
The recon teams (code named after states at CCC and snakes at CCN) normally consisted of two US Special Forces noncommissioned officers (slang term–“Snake Eaters” whose callsigns were One-Zero for the team leader and One-One for the assistant team leader) and six Special Forces trained Montagnard tribesmen (we called them “Yards”), the indigenous people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam known for their jungle survival and fighting skills. The teams wore unmarked clothing, carried unmarked equipment and were armed with Russian made AK-47 assault rifles in order to maintain a plausible deniability. So, on an almost daily basis (weather permitting), six Gladiator helicopters carrying a couple of Snake Eaters and a team of Yards along with four Pink Panther gunships, one Covey and two Fast Movers would launch out “over the fence” (the border) to “play a ball game” (the mission) and sometimes we’d get to play a “doubleheader” (two missions in a day).
It should be obvious by now that callsigns, code words, slang and acronyms were a huge part of the Vietnam helicopter pilot’s vocabulary. From a pilot’s perspective, most of a day’s conversations were conducted over the radios. Coordination within the ship, within the formation, with the gunships, control towers and ground forces all happened over a radio. The helicopters were equipped with three radios: VHF (Victor) and UHF (Uniform) for air to air communications, FM (Fox Mike) for ground troops along with the aircraft’s intercom system for the crew. I found after a few months in-country I could instantly tell by the tonal quality which radio was which, a talent that really helped when things got tense and all three radios and a crew member were fighting for attention in my helmet. Operational security or the fear of the “bad guys” listening in required callsigns and code words be used, not names, places or units. Every aviation unit had a callsign, for example Gunslinger, Kingsman or Outlaw and, as mentioned, the 57th’s was “Gladiator”. When a pilot attained aircraft commander (AC) status (varied with each unit and its need but normally around 200-300 in-country flight hours) he could pick his callsign from those available. The 57th had two UH-1 platoons (called Slicks because they had no serious guns, only two M-60 machine guns): first and second platoon. I was in the first platoon so my choice of callsigns was from one-one (11) to one-nine (19) depending on availability. When I made AC one-eight was available so I became Gladiator one-eight (18). For all intents and purposes the callsign became your name-it was used all day over the radio, during mission briefings or debriefings and even during poker games or at the Officers Club at night. Someone might say at the poker table “One-eight I think you’re bluffing” or at the “O” Club “One-eight can you pass the ketchup”. One aircraft commander that was on an extension of his normal one year Vietnam tour of duty when I arrived was Gladiator One-four (14). Prior to my getting to the unit he was shot down and due to intense enemy fire, it took quite a few attempts to get him and his crew out. On his small survival radio, he kept accusing the other Gladiator ships of purposely leaving him down on the ground so he could “win the war” and they could all go home. He was forever called “Win the war One-four”. CCC’s tactical callsigns changed every day which made things confusing so it was the co-pilot’s job to write the day’s callsigns on the windshield with a grease pencil ( a big no-no in the SOG security world but we did it anyway).
Over time the 57th developed a unique technique for “over the fence” operations that was used on almost every mission. The aircraft in a US Army helicopter formation used “chalk” numbers to designate each ship. The lead ship was “chalk one” followed by “chalk two, three and so on through the formation. It’s my understanding the term “chalk” was first coined in World War II during the invasion of Europe when the aircraft flight number was written in chalk on the troop’s back and, in early Vietnam combat assaults, it was common to number the sides or nose of the helicopters with chalk so troops knew which helicopter to board. For us chalk one was also called “lead” and the last ship in the formation was called “trail” or sometimes “tail end Charlie” (no idea where this one came from). We always took six ships on cross border missions even if only one or two ships were to be used for the insertion or extraction. Rarely were more than three ships needed for the small recon teams so chalks one, three and five would be the insertion/extraction ships and two, four and six were held in reserve. Due to the dense jungle and mountainous terrain, LZs (landing zones) were almost always single ship LZs or what we called “hover holes”. So, simply put, chalk two’s responsibility was to go down and pull out chalk one if it was shot down, chalk four was to get chalk three out and six, who also carried a Special Forces medic onboard was to get chalk five out.
“Lead” was the boss. He made all the formation decisions, coordinated with the gunships and Covey, made the decision to use the fast movers or not and was, in many ways, the quarterback of the mission. “Lead” AC’s were selected in a very un-Army like fashion based on mission experience not rank. If the CO (company commander) determined the unit needed another lead pilot (pilots were constantly coming and going as their one year tour of duty ended) the lead pilots from both platoons would get together to vote on the elevation of one of the unit’s aircraft commanders to lead status. Consequently, Lead pilots were the more experienced of the unit’s pilots and at any one time we only had three maybe four lead qualified pilots. New aircraft commanders started out flying chalk six then moved up the formation as more mission experience was gained. Flying “Lead” was always a thrill, not only because of the responsibility but, you knew, no matter if the mission was an insertion or an extraction, you were going to be the first ship into the single ship LZ -always an uncertain and challenging situation.
Insertions of one of the recon teams were normally fairly straightforward but could turn dicey very quickly. LZs were selected a significant distance from the team’s objective because the missions were covert and it’s difficult to sneak up on anyone in enemy controlled territory with 10 helicopters. The Cobra gunships would set up a low level circular or race track pattern around the LZ and chalks one, three and, if needed, five would, one at a time, approach the LZ. Normally, due to terrain, vegetation and the need for speed we just brought the helicopter to a six to ten foot hover and the team jumped off. After all team members were on the ground the formation would move about five miles away and orbit at 2000 feet awaiting a “good-day” from the team leader to Covey. The team one-zero had to insure no one was hurt jumping from the helicopters and, in fact, the immediate area was free of bad guys before moving through the jungle towards their objective. Once Covey got the “good-day” the slicks and gunships headed back to a small base just inside South Vietnam called Dak To (pronounced Toe) to refuel and stand by. Not infrequently, we inserted a team to close to NVA bad guys on the trail and a fire fight would break soon after the insertion making an emergency extraction necessary.
Extractions were the most harrowing part of any mission. Obviously, when a four to eight man recon team is discovered miles inside enemy territory, they have to come out ASAP. If the team one-zero declared a “TAC-E” or tactical emergency it meant they were engaged by an enemy of superior size, the mission was compromised and immediate extraction was required. If the one-zero declared a “Prairie Fire” the team was engaged, surrounded and annihilation imminent-serious stuff. When the siren went off signifying a TAC-E or a Prairie Fire had been declared the crews jumped in the helicopters, the first pilot in pulled the start trigger while the other pilot fastened their seat belt and put on his “chicken plate” (an armor plated chest protector). A quick radio check by Lead then six Gladiators and four Panthers, all with their hearts pounding, pulled pitch and headed west.
The flight to the extraction point could take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes depending on how far into Laos we were going and whether we were departing from Dak To or further away at CCC’s base outside Kontum. At 1500 feet and below we were susceptible to small arms fire so we kept an enroute altitude of 2000-3000 feet AGL (about 5000 feet MSL). While enroute the radios were alive: flight lead would get a team status briefing from Covey, Panther Lead would review the gunship patterned to be used based on wind, terrain etc., inside each extraction Huey last minute details were discussed among the crewmembers and, most importantly, the team one-zero would pass along specific information about the extraction, especially if it was expected to be “hot”. It was so eerie flying along, thousands of feet above this carpet of green jungle, to hear the one-zero almost whispering over the radio because the bad guys were so close or sometimes heavy breathing as the team was running through the jungle trying to keep ahead of their pursuers. Frequently, the sounds of the fire fight you were soon to be in the middle of could be clearly heard in the background. In this part of southeast Laos the rugged terrain is covered by think triple canopy jungle sometimes over 200 feet high so finding a landing area is virtually impossible and because of the team’s predicament extraction has to happen where ever they are when the helicopters arrive on scene. Consequently, one piece of information we wanted from the one-zero was this going to be a “string job” or a “ladder job.” This is where our mission became unique.
Each Huey had four 110 foot thick nylon ropes, we called “strings” attached at one end to a cargo tie-down ring on the cargo area floor. The helicopter cargo doors were pinned open and two strings could be deployed out each side of the ship. The other end of each string ended with an eye link with a six foot bridal rope that passed through the eye to its midpoint. Each end of a metal bar was attached to the bridal forming an isosceles triangle with the bar horizontal to the ground. Sometimes a piece of canvass was used to fill in the triangle to limit oscillation in flight. Each team member and all flight crews wore a harness which looked like a parachute harness without the parachute. It had loops for each leg, extended up over the shoulders and across the chest. On each shoulder strap was a metal D-Link which the team member would snap onto the horizontal bar and could now be lifted out of the jungle. The aircraft also had two 40 foot extraction ladders that could be deployed out each side of the helicopter if the LZ allowed the extraction ship to get closer to the ground. However, the teams did not climb the ladders because of the time that would take, instead they snapped on to a convenient rung and were plucked out of the jungle. The flight crews wore the harnesses because if the helicopter was shot down there was a good chance that’s how the rescue would happen. On slow days, with nothing else to do, we would take rides on the strings around the CCC compound and would always “christen” a newly arrived pilot with a quick dunk in the nearby Dak Bla River. It was quite a thrill to dangle 100+ feet below a helicopter flying at 50 knots and 1500 feet above the ground. Oh, to be young and stupid!
When the One-Zero relayed a string job would be required, the crew chief and door gunner readied the cargo area, double checked the strings and their M-60 machine guns. 8 to 10 miles from the extraction point the Cobras would descend to treetop level and, after coordinating with Covey the exact location of the team, set up a racetrack pattern around the team. The Gladiator formation would break into two components: Lead and chalk two would continue towards the extraction point at altitude while the rest of the formation would set up a holding orbit three to four miles from the team. Chalk two would position his ship outside the long axis of the gunship pattern about 2000 feet above the ground and slow to 50 knots. Once over the team and with the Cobra pattern in sight Lead would begin a high speed (110-120 knots) steep banked (approximately 45º) turn to spiral down to treetop level. I normally turned to the left since I was sitting in the left seat and would sometimes kick it a little out of trim to increase the descent rate. Since we knew the bad guys could see us, the idea was to descend as quickly as possible (up to 2500 ft/min) through the altitude range where enemy small arms fire was effective to the relative safety of low level flight. The descent was directly over the team’s position determined by a bright fluorescent orange panel held by the One-Zero. Upon reaching a low altitude and arresting the descent Lead turned outbound away from the team but within the racetrack established by the Cobras and continued outbound approximately 500 meters then turned inbound towards the team and began slowing. Chalk two, who was now positioned behind Lead at 2000 feet, vectored Lead who at treetop level could not see the team’s location due to the height of the jungle. “10 o’clock-300 meters, 12 o’clock 250 meters, 12 O’clock 150 meters – start slowing down” could be heard on the Uniform (UHF) radio. This is where things got intense and very noisy. The bad guys began redirecting their fire from the team to the sound of the inbound helicopter so tracers could be seen coming up from the ground or one of the crew would report “taking fire three o’clock 50 meters” which Lead would repeat over the Victor (VHF) radio to the gunships. Almost immediately multiple explosions detonated at three o’clock and 50 meters from the Cobra’s 2.75 inch high explosive rockets. The door gunner and crew chief’s M-60s were almost non stop from either side of the ship and chalk two was still vectoring on Uniform. Eventually, the One-Zero would report on the Fox Mike (FM) radio Lead directly overhead and the crew would search for a break or small hole in the jungle canopy in which the helicopter could start its descent.
Normally, the top of the triple canopy jungle was 200-250 feet high which meant Lead had to descend 100-150 feet into the jungle to get to an altitude the strings could be deployed. It took intense concentration on the part of the pilot and immense teamwork by the entire crew to maneuver the helicopter when surrounded by jungle. The crew would give continual instructions to the pilot – “slide the ship 10 feet to the left, now bring the nose three feet right, descend 10 feet” and every once in a while, “DON’T move the tail rotor.” My technique was to lock onto to a tree for a reference and not take my eyes off of it even if the ship began taking hits from the enemy fire which was very disconcerting when the instrument panel or windshield, both in my field of vision, was hit. It was not unusual to cut jungle branches with the main rotor blades, in fact, sometimes it was required to clear a spot so the descent could continue. I remember one discussion amongst the crew in a “hover hole” where we had to decide if a particular tree was too thick for a Huey rotor blade or not-luckily it wasn’t. Our maintenance office once told me the 57th went through more main rotor blades than any unit in Vietnam-don’t know if that’s true or not but it wouldn’t surprise me. Eventually the strings were tossed out each side of the ship and the first four team members hooked on. You could count on the assent being harder because there were now four less good guys on the ground to defend the extraction site and we had to find that same hole in the canopy. Power could also be an issue. Because of the high density altitude, heavy weight with the team hooked on and the need for extended OGE (out-of-ground-effect) hovering we were frequently at the aircraft’s power limit so the assent could not be rushed. It was not unusual for the trip down through the jungle, hooking up the team then back up to take 15 -20 minutes and the intensity level was off the charts. Bullets coming up, sometimes hitting the ship, return fire directed downwards, explosions all around from the Cobra’s rockets, hovering inside the jungle mere inches from trees and radios filling your helmet with information. Sometimes, in an effort to break the tension, I’d hear in my helmet from chalk five or six safely orbiting a few miles away something like “Hey One-eight, if you don’t make it out of there can I have your stereo equipment?” or “One-eight what’s your wife’s telephone number?” Sounds kind of macabre now but it worked.
Once the helicopter broke out on top of the jungle there was a bit of relief but it didn’t get any easier. Remember, the team is now hooked 110 feet below the helicopter so the helicopter will have to climb at least 110 feet above the canopy in an OGE hover until the team clears the jungle top and the aircraft can begin accelerating forward. Aircraft control, now without my reference tree and precise instructions from the crew are critical to prevent dragging the team through the trees. At this point the helicopter is no longer concealed by the jungle so it’s a sitting duck for any bad guy with a clear shot. To counter this the Cobras would shift from a racetrack pattern to a circular pattern and lay down a blanket of 20mm rounds from a M197 modified Vulcan cannon, 7.62mm minigun rounds (capable of up to 6000 rounds per minute) and rocket fire to keep the bad guys heads down. Once the team cleared the jungle, Lead would climb up to 5000 feet MSL, the team still dangling below the helicopter and turn east for the 30-45 minute flight back to South Vietnam (longer than the outbound flight because an airspeed more than 50 knots was too hard on the team). If the timing was right, chalk four would now be vectoring chalk three into the same situation and, hopefully, the Cobras still had some bullets left.
The flight back to South Vietnam was surreal. We’d just left the Bowels of Hell, four people are swinging around below the helicopter, the blue sky converging with the dark green carpet is stunning, radios relatively quiet, but it’s not quite over. We still have to set the team on the ground safely. Normally, the first secure base inside Vietnam was used to transfer the team into the helicopter. The pilot would bring the ship to another OGE hover with the team 10-20 feet above the ground, then slowly descend, careful not to slam the team on the ground. Moving off to one side, the helicopter would land, secure the team and the strings inside then depart back to Kontum.
Formal mission debriefings were held back at the Kontum CCC compound upon our return, however, informal debriefings occurred later at the O Club bar that night. The tradition was that the crew of any aircraft that took hits that day drank for free. After completely hashing out who screwed up where or what went right it was one more beer then off to bed for a pre-dawn wake up to do it all over again tomorrow. Oh, to be young, stupid and also indestructible!!