Monday, May 20, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 39

MINH THANH, Vietnam — The U.S. Army did a superb job of training helicopter pilots for combat in the Vietnam War.

Beginning with our first 4 months of flight training at the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter Training Center at Fort Wolters, Texas, we were being prepared to fly in combat in Southeast Asia. After 1 month of preflight training — a spit-and-polish period designed to weed out people who did not conform to the Army’s definition of an officer-aviator — we began flight instruction.

The first thing we learned was how to hover, followed by learning to take off and land a helicopter, make radio calls, monitor instruments, maintain proper engine and rotor rpm with a throttle mounted at the end of the collective pitch lever, solo, and cross-country navigation. Then we had to land and take off from pinnacles and out of confined areas surrounded by trees.

Early during flight training at Fort Wolters, students were told if they did not get along with their flight instructor, they could request a change. I couldn’t imagine that situation arising, until it confronted me.

My first instructor pilot was a civilian who worked for Southern Airways, which held a contract to teach us how to fly. Other instructor pilots — or IPs — were active duty military aviators, many of whom recently had returned from Vietnam.

At first I didn’t realize I had a personality conflict with my IP. Like the other student pilots, I was learning skills unrelated to anything I had ever done before. Someone once compared learning to fly a helicopter with riding a unicycle while juggling.

As flight training progressed, I began to pick up clues the IP and I weren’t bosom-buddies. After the expected stress of learning to hover, I began to pick up hints he might be aiming for me.

One day during an early instructional flight, the IP told me to make a descending turn to a particular compass heading. Everything seemed to click and our descent and heading worked perfectly. “That’s good,” the instructor told me. Not used to hearing compliments about my flying, I responded with a relieved, “It was pretty good.” His reply was brief and aimed at my jugular: “Quit bragging about yourself. You’ll screw up the next maneuver.”

Our cockpit conversations deteriorated from there. If I made a mistake during an instructed flight, the IP would yell: “Do that again and I’ll pink your ass.” This was a serious threat. When a student pilot made an unsatisfactory flight, the instructor would hand him a pink slip — the equivalent of an “F” grade. If a student received two pink slips he had to take a check ride, which determined if he would get kicked out of flight school.

My flight instructor’s threat came to pass and I was handed a pink slip several days later. I was sweating. One more pink slip and my flying time could be over. Several days later, the IP handed me the second pink slip. Before I could fly again I would have to take a check ride with a standardization pilot.

The appointed time and day arrived. I conducted a preflight inspection of the helicopter, knowing it could be the last time I would perform one. The standardization pilot knew I was nervous and tried to put me at ease. After taking off from the Main Heliport at Fort Wolters, I flew all the maneuvers the pilot asked.

Though I was on a make-or-break check ride I discovered flying with the standardization pilot was more relaxing than with my instructor pilot. After we landed, the check pilot filled out a form and turned to me. “Here it comes,” I thought.

“There’s nothing wrong with your flying,” he told me. “I don’t understand why you had to take a check ride.” I remained mum.

Each day, when my classmates and I were bused to the flightline, I hoped the red flag was flying. The flag meant weather conditions would not permit flying. The flag was never red.

Over the next 2 weeks, I received 2 more pink slips. Again, the standardization pilot told me my flying was up to snuff.

I wised up and asked for another instructor pilot. The next morning when I reported to the flightline, I was introduced to my new IP, an active duty chief warrant officer 2 recently back from a year’s tour of duty in South Vietnam.

For the first time since beginning flight school I began enjoying cockpit time. My grades soared, primarily because I could relax and concentrate on flying. There were no more pink slips or standardization rides throughout flight school. Instead of dreading flight instruction, I looked forward to it.

I was jumping all the hurdles as I finished up at Fort Wolters and moved on to instrument, formation, Huey transition, and tactical flying at Fort Rucker.

Later, after arriving at our combat units in South Vietnam, flight training continued. During our first 30-45 days in-country, new Peter Pilots flew with aircraft commanders who had experience in the area of operations and had developed the skills needed to fly overloaded and land in tricky areas.

By the time a helicopter pilot had been flying combat missions for three months, he was comfortable in about any situation he could face. The helicopter became an extension of his body. His depth perception became so highly tuned, he knew exactly where the main rotor blade tips were slicing through the air. He could sense the correct engine and rotor rpm.

When the shooting began, most helicopter pilots felt they had some control over their environment. Lift pilots flying troops into a landing zone during a combat assault could steer through enemy tracers that marked a fraction of rounds being fired at them by the enemy. We learned not to flinch, as that might cause you to collide with another Huey in formation. All helicopter pilots were familiar with the often-repeated saying: “A mid-air can ruin your whole day.”

I remember this was put to a test late one afternoon when the Thunderbirds were told to make “one more assault.” During the pilots’ briefing in the field before the assault, we were told a .50-caliber machine gun had been seen near the landing zone.

Sure enough, it found us. During final approach, the .50 began shooting from the LZ, straight up our formation. I had heard tracers from a .50 looked as big as basketballs. They looked a lot larger to me.

Holding a tight formation, our flight of Hueys was flying directly in the line of fire. A tracer looked like it was heading straight toward you and would come through the windshield. Then, just before it hit you in the face, the tracer would arc up and over your aircraft. It was an odd sensation. Fortunately, none of the aircraft were hit.

Where I really felt vulnerable was on the ground.

One week in late October 1967, some members of our lift platoon were assigned to carry Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol — or LRRP — soldiers into remote LZs at night. The soldiers we dropped off then would travel in small groups through enemy territory to gather intelligence.

Minh Thanh Special Forces Camp
About a week later, we would pick these “Roadrunner” crews up at night. This involved flying over a designated area, looking for a dim light from the ground. We flew with our external lights off, so it was important to keep track of other Hueys flying in the area.

When one of the LRRP teams signaled its position, a helicopter would make an approach to the team, pick up the soldiers and fly them back to base for debriefing.

On the final night of the mission, we cranked up our Hueys and flew to the pickup locations. I recall seeing a dim light flashing at us from the ground. As we made our approach to the light, I remembered hoping the person holding it was one of our guys and he had selected a clearing large enough for our main rotor blades.

The pickup went without a hitch. A major problem began later, after we had landed the helicopter and shut down the engine.

Skull outside camp
That week we had been operating from a clearing in a rubber plantation at Minh Thanh. There was a Special Forces compound ringed with barbed wire and a deep ditch in the same clearing. The helicopter crews were quartered outside the camp.

On our return from the pickup, we landed our Hueys. Within minutes of engine shutdown, the clearing erupted into battle. The Viet Cong apparently had timed their attack to begin just after we shut down the helicopter engines, when they could not be restarted.

I pulled my .38-caliber revolver from its holster and ran to a shallow depression in the ground. The sound of the attack was now a loud roar; so many rounds were being fired on both sides I could not distinguish individual shots. The nearby camp was using mortars to shoot parachute flares into the sky to illuminate the clearing.

Cambodian mercenaries each placed a golden Buddha talisman worn around his neck between his teeth and charged toward the treeline, rifle in hand. The roar continued unabated.

I was out of my element, so I looked around to see what other helicopter crewmembers were doing. My gaze came to rest on the tent behind me. Sitting on a cot under a canvas wall that had been rolled up for ventilation was one of our pilots, Major Donald Van Pietersom. In his hand, he held a San Miguel beer.

Cambodian mercenaries charge trees.
I looked down at the revolver I was holding, then back at Van Pietersom. “What are you going to do with that thing?” he shouted at me. I looked at the revolver again, and then put it back in the holster. I stepped out of the foxhole, walked to the tent, and sat down next to Van Pietersom on the cot. He handed me a beer.

After the battle had gone on for several minutes, I saw long, narrow flames moving through the sky above the clearing. Then I heard a loud, extended belch. Gunship-mounted mini-guns, firing up to 6,000 rounds per minute, began raking the edge of the clearing. Then rockets were fired into the treeline. Our gunships had returned. No one expected them back so soon from refueling.

Captain Jim Thorne, leader of the Bandit escort gunships that night, told me later he had expected the Viet Cong to attack us on the ground.

“After we returned about dusk, I advised the Special Forces captain of our plan and then took the fire team to Dau Tieng to refuel and rearm. The basic plan was to be airborne when the attack took place and have the Special Forces camp call us on the radio immediately when it began,” Jim said.

“We took on extra fuel, rearmed and managed to slide overloaded down the PSP — or perforated steel plank runway — far enough to get lift. We headed back toward the Special Forces camp so we would be no more than five minutes from Minh Thanh, where we could respond quickly when the attack began.

Mini-gun tracers, helicopter exhaust visible
during attack on enemy assault at night.
“About the time we reached our loiter point we began to see the VC mortar tubes light up and friendly tracers responding to the incoming,” Jim said. “Our plan was to have the gunship armed with mini-guns fly a tight circle over the tree line around the camp with the guns fully depressed. This would keep the fire contained to the enemy in the tree line and not take a chance on having any friendly casualties. At the same time, I would take the hog and go after the mortars.”

A “hog” was a UH-1C Huey gunship armed exclusively with 48 rockets — 24 on each side.

Jim said, “Our plan seemed to work very well. As I recall, there were two mortars firing on the camp and they were taken out fairly quickly and the minis managed to dispatch the enemy ground troops shortly thereafter.”

Warrant Officer Jack Mullican recalled helping set up camp. On the second night the Viet Cong threw a grenade into the clearing. We thought, “What the heck is going on?” Mullican said he decided it was a test to see what the reaction would be.

“On the third night there was a lot more,” he said. However, it was on the fourth night the Viet Cong launched their most aggressive attack, Mullican said.

Though most of the helicopter crewmembers were not near their aircraft when the attack was launched, one crew chief remained on board his Huey, firing the M-60 machine gun until the barrel turned red from the heat.

Mullican recalled on the first day of the operation digging a hole about 5 feet deep in case the clearing was attacked. When the big attack began, Mullican said he “didn’t think about anything but getting my butt down there.”

However, when he leaped into the hole, he learned it contained more than 4 feet of water. “There was a creek nearby and the water table was pretty high,” he said.

After getting himself organized in the water-filled hole, additional shooting erupted. Another pilot, Warrant Officer Ricky Gay, “jumped into my hole behind me. When he did that I thought I had been shot or stabbed. He scared me to pieces.”

The following day, the pilots and crews of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company safely returned to Bien Hoa.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Minh Thanh Special Forces Camp photos taken by Jim Thorne. Night attack photos taken by Jack Swickard.

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