An Air Cav squadron, eager for action in unfamiliar territory, was glad to leave Song Re after two tough weeks.
I joined Charlie Troop in early April 1967 at Landing Zone (LZ) Two Bits, a forward firebase split by Highway 514 atop a rise of land just west of the town of Bong Son. Charlie Troop, part of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), was operating along the coastal plain and in the mountains and valleys throughout Binh Dinh Province in the II Corps Tactical Zone.
There is always a price to pay in war, and losses among aircrews and infantry, the“Blues,”came with the territory when you were always looking for trouble. And in the middle of 1967, there was plenty of trouble to be found. As such, the squadron was comprised of all volunteers. “Young tigers”they called us, usually followed by“God bless.”We quickly adopted an “always the other guy” attitude, but knew all too well that for everyone else, “we”were the“other guy.”And, when the inevitable happened, the troop would hold a brief memorial service, silently promise to “never forget,” and then get ready to“saddle up”and ride again.After all, we were the Cav.
I was in the Lift Platoon, which flew four Hueys. Our primary responsibility was to insert and extract the Blues into LZs or from Pick-up Zones (PZs). Combat assaults were typically the result of suspicious observations, confirmed enemy sightings or hostile fire directed at the aircraft. Needless to say, landing and taking off in a fully loaded helicopter in tropical conditions from rice paddies, mountaintops, ridgelines and sometimes even bomb craters was demanding and exciting. Much more so when the LZ or PZ was “hot”—which meant there had been or was a high probability of enemy fire. Weapons platoons, or “Reds,” utilized machine guns, grenades and rockets to provide cover for the landing and departing aircraft and the Blues on the ground. Lift ship crew chiefs and designated door gunners could also bring M-60 machine gun fire to bear from bungee-slung or pylon-mounted weapons.
Most lift pilots, or “slick drivers,” developed a very light control touch and keen feel for the aircraft. Nothing gets the adrenaline flowing and heart rates up as when you’re flying on final approach into a hot LZ. Slide the outside panel of the armored seat forward for a little more cover, lower the visor on your flight helmet to protect your eyes and while one pilot concentrates on staying in formation and flying the approach, the other follows along with hands and feet ready to take over if necessary.“If necessary” simply meant that the guy flying gets“hit.”No matter how good we were, every combat assault or extraction had the potential of being our last.
In mid-1967, as the hot spring rolled into a steamy summer, Charlie Troop conducted daily operations out of Two Bits in a cat and mouse game with the enemy. Most of the missions were routine, with an occasional pre-dawn combat assault, convoy cover along Highway 1, or resupply and support of engaged ground units. We also conducted night flights to An Khe, emergency extractions of Long Range Recon Patrols, medical evacuations of wounded or dead, and recovery of downed aircraft and crews.
So, in early August, when we received a new assignment, there was an extra air of excitement among the men. Charlie Troop was to conduct operations in the Song Re Valley as a part of a long-range offensive against elements of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC), called Operation Pershing. The mission called for daily deployment of the troop to a grass airstrip at the valley’s southern end just outside the village of Gia Vuc, which was also home to U.S. Special Forces Team A-103.
The valley had long been suspected of being a significant VC and NVA sanctuary, and the Cavalry was preparing to find out if that was true. The Song Re is a major north-south valley about 37 miles northwest of Bong Son and 32 miles southwest Quang Ngai City in the I Corps Tactical Zone. We were unfamiliar with the area, but it seemed sure to offer a welcome change from the increasingly familiar routine and terrain around Two Bits.
In the early morning of August 4, Charlie Troop saddled up, pulled pitch and flew toward the Song Re with eager anticipation. As our flight entered the Central Highlands, the village, Special Forces camp and airstrip all came into view, as did the valley running to the north. After we landed and positioned our air craft along the runway, we could see that the look of the village and its people was different than what we were accustomed to seeing around Bong Son. We were in the home of Montagnard tribes that had a long and storied history of fighting against the North alongside the French and now their U.S. counterparts.
The first sign of things to come occurred on Sunday, August 6. Charlie Troop’s commander, Major William Harvey, Raider 6, was conducting a recon mission and received a number of hits to his aircraft from automatic weapons.The following days,August 7 and 8, the troop conducted additional air and ground operations, and two gun ships were hit by ground fire. Raider 11 was forced down, and the pilot made an emergency landing. Our Blues were lifted from Gia Vuc to an improvised LZ to secure and recover the crew and aircraft. Given the nature of Charlie Troop’s mission, these actions were business as usual.
On August 9 the troop saddled up and was in the air heading back to the Song Re at first light. Although Charlie Troop was part of a larger operation, the exact nature and extent of our Song Re mission was kept under wraps, including the planned air assault on a ridge top designated LZ Pat and the “recon in force” to follow. Typically, we were briefed on the ground or in the air, with the specifics of a particular mission by our platoon leader, Captain Abe Stice, Raider 35. The nature of our operations and tactics, in addition to evolving battlefield conditions, often dictated an “on the fly” approach to these briefings. As objectives could quickly change, airmobile flexibility—the founding concept of the 1st Cavalry Division—was the key to success.
As we landed and settled in at Gia Vuc, our first recon teams were already “on station” in the valley. The weather was favorable: clear skies, seven miles visibility, expected high temperature of 89. The operation began at 7:37 a.m. with the air assault of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry into LZ Lou to secure a forward firebase for C Battery, 2nd Battalion, 19th Artillery, and the battalion command post. Following that maneuver, Company A was to be air assaulted further into the valley at 9:45 a.m. to LZ Pat, which was on a ridgeline dominated by Hill 450 to the northwest and Hill 625 to the west-southwest. The ridgeline was chosen because it was the only high ground large enough and clear enough to allow six lift ships to land, and because it was in an area that would give the company the advantage of reconnoitering from high ground down to the valley floor below.
With Pat secured, Company A was to clear Hill 450 and the ridgeline to the northwest, reconnoitering to the northeast and north of Hill 450 and moving down to the valley floor by 5 p.m. The company would be airlifted in four flights of six Hueys, each carrying five combat-loaded troopers. The 1st Platoon was to move in on the first flight of six ships with the company command group to secure the southern portion of the LZ. The 2nd Platoon, on the second flight of ships, was to secure the northern half. The Weapons Platoon, on the third flight, was to set up its mortars and two machine guns and provide fire support for the last element to come in, the 3rd Platoon.
After five minutes of preparatory fires on and around the LZ from 105mm howitzers, the first flight of six ships touched down abreast of each other, and the 1st Platoon moved left to secure half of the LZ. The 2nd Platoon touched down about 30 seconds later and moved out to secure the other half. As soon as the second flight of six ships lifted off, the Weapons Platoon was on the ground, followed then by the last flight of ships carrying the 3rd Platoon. Two gun ships covered the flights with suppressive fire, then orbited overhead.
On the ground during the first few minutes of the air assault, the noise of the suppressive fire made it difficult to determine if hostile fire was being received on the LZ. However, as the final flight of ships came in, sporadic hostile fire was heard, and the last man had to jump about eight feet when the ship he was in lifted off before all the men had exited. Within 15 minutes from the start of the assault, Company A was totally committed, and was facing a determined and well-positioned enemy force. A pitched battle would rage for the next four hours.
As the air assault at LZ Pat was unfolding, Charlie Troop commander Major Harvey was piloting his command helicopter providing surveillance on the LZ periphery just north of Hill 450, accompanied by his chase ship, piloted by Captain Robert A. Thompson. Flying at 100 feet, Harvey’s aircraft suddenly received intensive large-caliber automatic weapons fire, taking numerous hits. At that very instant, Harvey looked back and saw Thompson’s ship, at 500 feet, hit so severely that it started to burn, went out of control and crashed, exploding on impact.
At Gia Vuc, the urgent call of “down bird” spread along the flight line. The lift pilots and crews scrambled to get our engines burning and blades turning, while the Blues grabbed their gear and jumped on board.
Raider 35 led our flight of four lifts north from Gia Vuc. Radios crackled with anxious voices as we learned that two of our gun ships had been shot down by 12.7mm automatic weapons near LZ Pat. Major Harvey, Raider 6, crashed on or near the valley floor in an open area at the base of Hill 450, and the aircraft was heavily damaged. The crew chief had suffered a broken hip, but beyond bumps and bruises, the others were OK. Captain Thompson, Raider 25, and his crew were not as fortunate, however, and because of the significant enemy threat, we could make no immediate attempt to get to their burning wreckage. Experience told us that there was little possibility the crew survived.
We inserted the Blues near Raider 6. I watched the black smoke from Raider 25 rising in the sky, wondering where the enemy’s big guns were, and if they were just waiting for us to take off. And I had good reason to be worried. It turns out, information later gained from a captured NVA sergeant, a Montagnard Viet Cong, captured documents and a survey of the battle area revealed a fearsome array of enemy forces in wait to make Pat one extremely “hot” LZ.
The NVA’s 107th Air Defense Battalion had infiltrated into South Vietnam, arriving in Quang Ngai Province in April and reaching the Song Re Valley in June. One of the four companies of the battalion, 3rd Company, had occupied gun positions in the saddle between Hills 625 and 450. The 107th was composed of a headquarters company and three firing companies, each equipped with three 12.7mm anti-aircraft guns. Each firing company was assigned a rifle company from the 120th Montagnard Viet Cong Battalion.
The hill mass overlooking LZ Pat was likely occupied by about 80 men of the 3rd Company, with its three anti-aircraft weapons and approximately 80 Montagnard riflemen. Captured documents disclosed the presence of an 80-man heavy weapons company of the 120th Montagnard Battalion in the same hill mass, equipped with a 12.7mm gun, 82mm mortars and 57mm recoilless rifles. Most of the elements of the two battalions were within a 5-kilometer area of LZ Pat that morning.
Our enemies anticipated which way we would turn to dodge fire and had their heavy weapons set up to shoot us down, but in this case we made quick work of the crew extraction and returned to GiaVuc. The loss of Raider 25, Captain Thompson,Warrant Officer Francis Rochkes, 1st Lt. Honorio Fidel and Spc. 4 Ray Moran weighed on everyone’s mind. We now had a whole new perspective on the Song Re Valley.
Warrant Officer Paul Davis, Raider 24, and his co-pilot Warrant Officer Chuck Iannuzzi in Charlie Troop’s Weapons Platoon had already flown one mission into the Song Re that morning when word arrived at Gia Vuc about Raider 6 and 25. In an aircraft loaned by headquarters to Davis because his helicopter had been damaged, and with a crew chief and door gunner also loaned from Headquarters Company, Davis’team was next up on the flight line and soon flew back to the battle zone to provide fire support.When Davis and Iannuzzi neared Hill 450, they saw Major Harvey’s aircraft rolled over on its roof, as well as Captain Thompson’s burning aircraft, almost completely consumed. Davis continued to circle the area in between the other gunships and the Navy and Marine A-6 Intruders making their gun runs on enemy positions.
As Davis’ aircraft laid down suppressive fire support for the troops on the ground and was climbing out of a gun run, the chopper took a hit. At 800 feet, the first 12.7mm round came through the front of the left chin bubble, tearing through the left petal and cyclic into the middle of Iannuzzi’s chest protector. It plowed up without penetrating the protector until it had reached the end and exited, into his right arm, removing part of his bicep and forearm, then taking out the window over his head.
Feeling like he’d been “slammed in the chest with a 25-pound sledge hammer,”Iannuzzi was thrown back into his seat, racked by searing pain. He also had shrapnel wounds in his legs, while Davis took some glass and metal fragment cuts on his face.
At least two rounds hit the front of the aircraft and five hit in the tail rotor drive shaft and engine area. The vertical stabilizer had a softball-size hole in it about a foot below the tail rotor itself. The aircraft pitched up and went into a violent spin. As Davis struggled to stabilize the aircraft and prepare for a crash landing, Iannuzzi grabbed the mike with his left hand and shouted: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is Raider 24, we’ve been hit and I’ve been wounded. We lost our tail rotor and we’re going in!”
The wound in Iannuzzi’s right bicep was near an artery, and with each heartbeat he was squirting blood all over the console and map. Davis looked over at him and shouted, “Aw, Chuck, please don’t bleed on the map!”
Davis entered an autorotation to stop the spinning, shut the engine down and headed for a small clearing along a riverbed, where the chopper hit hard. They were about 800 meters from where Raider 6 and Captain Thompson had crashed.
Our lifts left Gia Vuc and were again airborne, heading for Davis’ Raider 24, with more anxious radio chatter about heavy caliber weapons. By the time we got there, Iannuzzi had already been medevaced by his wingman, but the rest of the crew needed immediate extraction. Captain Stice quickly assessed the mission and ordered our flight to “hold” south of 24’s location. He then maneuvered his aircraft through areas of heavy enemy fire, landed near the downed aircraft and rescued Davis and his remaining crew. After that he successfully evaded enemy fire to rejoin the flight. Stice would later be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day.
As the battle around LZ Pat raged through the morning and into the afternoon, the small airstrip at Gia Vuc was a hectic place. Air Force C-123s and Army C-7 Caribous delivered artillery shells, rockets and ammo, while heavy lift CH-47 Chinooks and CH-54 Flying Cranes kept the fuel coming. All heads turned when the two remaining experimental “Guns-a-Go Go” settled down on the busy strip, ready for action. The ACH-47A Chinook aircraft, which typically carried five .50-caliber machine guns, two 20mm cannons, two 2.75-inch rocket launchers and a single 40mm grenade launcher flew a number of combat sorties in support of men fighting at LZ Pat.
Charlie Troop was fortunate that it suffered no additional losses of aircraft or personnel that day. Losses for the day were six killed and 20 wounded from Company A at LZ Pat. Charlie Troop had four killed and one wounded, and a gunship door gunner from C Company, 229th Aviation Battalion was killed. Two helicopters had been destroyed and five damaged. Subsequent searches netted a total of 73 enemy killed.
Unnerving to us all was the discovery of the extensive enemy fortifications within LZ Pat itself. The largest of the emplacements, located in the middle of the landing zone, consisted of three holes with connecting tunnels and small rooms off the main hole, and contained five enemy soldiers with automatic weapons. During the initial landing, a grenade dropped in one of the holes had failed to neutralize the position, and the enemy stayed there throughout the four-hour battle. Even after two more grenades were tossed in, the enemy had returned fire on the approaching men. Finally, after a total of 10 grenades had been tossed in, the enemy soldiers were killed.
On the morning of August 10, the flight from LZ Two Bits back into the Song Re took on a more somber and cautious feel. Charlie Troop scouted the area for additional or withdrawing enemy units. Some remained, as the call of a “down bird” once again passed along the flight line, and lift crews and Blues scrambled back into the valley.
Raider 21, Lieutenant Walter Wales’ aircraft, had been hit by automatic weapons fire, and his crew chief and gunner were wounded. He was able to fly out of the immediate area before being forced down because of the damage. Their position was secure and the Blues were inserted. Wales and the crew were quickly recovered and returned to the medical aid station at Gia Vuc. Later in the day, Blues were called upon to conduct a ground recon, and our flight received small-arms fire as we approached the landing zone. This time, no aircraft, crew or Blues were hit and no enemy engaged once the Blues were on the ground.
Later that day, escorted by a flight of gunships, Captain Stice lifted a squad of Blues to the crash site near Hill 450 and recovered the remains of Captain Thompson and his crew.
Although we operated out of Gia Vuc and in the Song Re Valley through August 14, there was little additional enemy contact, and action in the valley was winding down. We had experienced what would be the enemy’s classic battle strategy in the Vietnam War: close up and personal, intense, then disengage and disappear into the mountains, jungles, hills or villages and wait to fight another day. The overall “recon in force” would be summarized in the Army report on LZ Pat as having “successfully accomplished its mission of locating the enemy in a heretofore unexplored region and destroyed one of his fortified areas.”
By August 15 most of Charlie Troop had resumed operations around Bong Son, thinking about those lost and wounded in the Song Re, and looking ahead to the rains of the monsoon. Life returned to “normal” over the next several months, until once again we broke camp, saddled up and flew north into unfamiliar territory. We left Two Bits behind and were soon calling the Marine base at Dong Ha on the DMZ home.
Unknown to us, just over the horizon loomed the Tet Offensive of 1968. Soon, instead of the Song Re, it would be the valleys of Khe Sanh and A Shau where the young men of Charlie Troop would be tested once again.
Paul Hart completed his tour in March 1968 after flying along the DMZ during the Tet Offensive. After a career as a New Jersey police detective, he is now a stained glass artisan in southern Arizona.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.