Birds vs Cong

Birds vs Cong

By Stanley Cherrie
1/2/2019 • Vietnam Magazine

A one-minute delay helped the 191st Assault Helicopter Company annihilate a massive ground assault.

The first light of December 13, 1967, hinted at a gorgeous day. Wisps of fog drifted up from jungle streambeds as the night dampness began to evaporate. No doubt the choking humidity would worsen throughout the heat of the day, but for now the sky was clear and winds were calm. The density altitude, for once, was forecast to remain optimal for rotary-wing operations. I was scheduled to fly the lead gunship that day with Major Robert Stack, the gun platoon leader who had joined the unit from the 334th Aerial Weapons Company (AWC), the “Sabers.” We both had earned aircraft commander (AC) status, which was reserved for pilots who had attained a certain skill level and actual combat experience.

Just as I finished the preflight inspection and was ready to strap myself into the bird, Stack approached the aircraft. “Stan,” he said, “I haven’t flown much in the past several days. Do you mind if I fly the right seat with you today?”

The right seat of a Bell UH-1C was equipped with instrumentation that allowed the pilot-in-command to use certain navigation aids not accessible to the co-pilot. Consequently, the right seat was associated with seniority and reserved for the senior pilot. In a gunship, this seat was typically also the position from which the highest echelon weapons were employed. Since Stack had the experience edge and command of the gun platoon, I immediately yielded the right seat.

We carefully strapped into our seat belts and shoulder harnesses and began the run-up procedures for our Charliemodel “Frog.” The nickname stemmed from the wartlike bubble on the nose of the aircraft that housed the devastating 40mm M-5 grenade launcher capable of firing up to 300 rounds per minute. Frog ships also had 38 (in two 19-shot pods) 2.75-inch folding-fin rockets. A forward center of gravity with the M-5 grenade launcher installed, and the aerodynamic drag of the rocket pods, caused the Frog to fly with an exaggerated nose-down attitude that gave it an ungainly appearance. This system, however, combined with a skilled crew chief on the left and gunner on the right side, made it an awesome weapons platform that Viet Cong never wanted to see.

The pilots and crews of the 191st Assault Helicopter Company—known as the “Boomerangs”—were well-versed in close air support of ground troops, mostly the 9th Infantry Division. This day was an exception. We would be flying combat assaults with a South Vietnamese Regional Force/Popular Force (RF/PF, or “RuffPuff”) unit. I had checked the gunship meticulously from head to toe, and for added safety carefully tapped the butt end of my Gerber survival knife on the back of the firing electrode connected to each of the 38 rockets. The warheads had a tendency to hang in the pod when the pilot-triggered electrical impulse failed to ignite the rocket motor. Hang fires created a hairy, suspense-filled clearing exercise once the bird got back on the ground. Not often, but frequently enough to cause unforgettable drama, a rocket would fire unexpectedly because of heat, or cook off, as crews tried to unload the “tube hanger.” The result of such a cookoff could be extensive property damage or death, not to mention an abrupt end to the career of an AC found responsible.

Fully armed and fueled, the two “Bounty Hunter” light fire teams that would be supporting the three lift platoons departed Bearcat. Their destination was Xuan Loc, a beautiful region dotted with rubber tree plantations and palatial villas built during the French colonial period. Command Warrant Officer Second Class Tommy Sandefur, known as “Big Okie,” was the second fire team leader, with Ed McKee as co-pilot. The slicks were all flocked behind Captain Dee Kennedy. The savvy Kennedy, who was flight lead, waited patiently for an “up” report from the trail ship, signaling that all aircraft had reached full rpm before easing his lead Huey airborne. One by one, the other nine ships in the formation took to the air, forming the lift element for the day.

The flight to Xuan Loc was peaceful. The clear sky lent a spectacular view of the triple-canopy jungle below, a solid mass of green hues nourished by the tropical Southeast Asian climate. But Kennedy viewed the terrain from an entirely different perspective. As flight lead, he remained tense with suspicion directed at every valley, every large clump of trees and every mountain peak. Any of these terrain features could mean disaster for the flight if he took the formation too close to a hidden enemy stronghold. Kennedy carefully scrutinized every location that might possibly yield danger. Flight lead crews were always handpicked and heavily experienced. Rock-steady nerves were a requirement. Since every airspeed or angle-of-bank adjustment made by flight lead became progressively exaggerated for aircraft farther back in a formation, constant anticipation and superior map-reading skills were essential for a successful flight leader. Dee’s flight suit was soaked with perspiration by the time he reached Xuan Loc.

In the course of an hour or so, the RF/PFs, organized by their American advisers into groups of seven soldiers per lift, boarded slicks for their first insertion. The number of passengers the slicks could carry was a function of total aircraft weight, including fuel on board and density altitude. The morning passed without enemy contact, and the afternoon seemed destined for more of the same. In the interim, the Bounty Hunters were ordered to conduct a search-and-destroy mission to create a screening force north of the RF/PF operation.

Flying at a low level over the thick jungle growth was tedious work but it finally paid off. Two VC soldiers, who happened to be crossing a clearing just as the armed Huey topped a nearby ridge, bolted for cover. Without hesitation, Stack jerked the cyclic control of the gunship into a vigorous wingover and aligned his rocket sights on the fleeing VC. Simultaneously, I reported the enemy contact to Command and Control (C&C).

The first rocket exploded harmlessly about 30 meters behind the runners. One VC continued toward the nearest treeline while the other stopped abruptly, turned and aimed his weapon at the attacking gunship. Hardly had the first muzzle blast escaped the AK-47 in his hands, when the second rocket blew him into a black-pajama-clad pile of smoking flesh. The surviving VC was nearing the jungle foliage when a machine gun burst fired by Spc. 4 “Hein” Heinmiller, the crew chief, found its mark. Immediately climbing to altitude, Stack scanned the countryside in a half-moon circle north of the kill, while ordering his second fire team to do the same to the south. Nothing else moved.

After careful scrutiny of the surrounding ground, Stack instructed our wing ship and the second fire team to cover our approach to the clearing while we landed and searched the dead VC for information. With Sergeant Davis, the gunner, covering him, M-60 machine gun at the ready, Spc. 4 Heinmiller leaped out of the bird and shook down one VC; he collected a weapon but found nothing else. Then he quickly moved to the second, from whom he retrieved a weapon and a tin container, which he cradled in his arm like a football as he ran back to the bird. Stack wasted no time getting airborne and calling C&C to report the collected weapons and the mysterious tin, which I was now doing my best to open. Low on fuel, Stack advised C&C that we were departing the area to go refuel and rearm.

At first I tried to remove the tin’s lid while wearing my flight gloves, which made for slow progress with the slippery, unyielding metal. Finally, just as Stack was on short final approach at Xuan Loc, I pulled off my gloves and clamped down on the tin, determined to pull the lid off the container. With a loud snapping sound, the tin came open and showered the cockpit with fermented shrimp and nuoc mam. Instinctively, Stack slammed the left pedal to the floor to get a crosswind flowing from his side of the bird to mine.

The trailing aircraft were alarmed, fearing something had gone wrong with the lead bird’s flight controls. Stack skillfully shot the remainder of his approach with the chopper’s tail canted awkwardly to the right until he reached ground effect. He then continued to hover sideways until he reached the refueling point. Just as the aircraft touched the ground, the entire crew leaped out of the bird, while I slapped at my flight suit and looked down at my midsection with a grimace. The other three crew members were bent over laughing with a racket that spread to the rest of helicopter crews as each landed and walked over to the lead ship. Sympathetically, the crew chief produced a can of Go-Jo, a grease-cutter compound, so I could clean my hands. “This will help get the stink off your hands, sir,” he said, “but I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about your britches.”

After refueling and rearming, the Bounty Hunters hovered to the parking area on a road adjacent to the compound. There we shut down to wait for further instructions from C&C. Dee Kennedy and the slicks had been waiting there since the last insertion and had already received instructions from C&C to proceed to a certain location for another RF/PF combat assault.

Choosing to brief Stack and me personally, instead of relaying the map coordinates over the air, Kennedy walked the short distance to where the gunships were parked. We saw Kennedy and waited for him outside the bird. As he began pointing to the map coordinates and repeating the C&C message, he stopped talking, wrinkled his nose in my direction, and with his good ole’ Southern drawl uttered the magic words that triggered another outburst of laughter from the gun crew: “Maaaan! What stinks so baaaad!”

Red-faced, I attempted an explanation, but Kennedy remained unmoved. Finally, with the philosophical essence of a true Southern gentleman, Kennedy downplayed the entire episode to leave me a graceful way out. As he started walking back to the slicks with an amused grin, Dee mumbled softly: “Well, Stan…whatever you say. At least you’re not Stateside where you’d have to go home smelling like that.”

As Kennedy returned to his aircraft, he gave the signal for the flight to crank up, index finger pointed skyward and hand turning in a circular motion simulating a turning rotor. This set off a chain reaction along the line of aircraft parked on the side of the road. Flight crews began untying rotor blades and turning them 90 degrees to the fuselage. Tiedown straps were stowed away, and with fire extinguishers in hand, the crew chiefs peered into the engine cowling inspection ports in case a fuel fire were to erupt during start-up. One by one, all the rotor blades began turning as each aircraft initiated start and run-up procedures, soon reaching 6,000 rpm. Then, with the flick of a thumb on the collective-stick switch, an additional 600 rpm brought each helicopter to 6,600 rpm, the normal lift-off power for a UH-1. As soon as lead received the “up” signal, the entire armada took to the air.

So complete was the 191st air assault package that seldom would any enemy force challenge our tactical capability in a conventional engagement. This made for a slow, tedious war of attrition against an elusive enemy that refused to come out and fight. By this stage in the war, the battles of the Ia Drang Valley had conditioned the enemy to shy away from traditional fights against American war machinery. Enemy tactics had shifted to guerrilla operations that could best elude the U.S. technical advantage. Thus, for the most part, day operations belonged to American initiatives while the night belonged to the enemy. This made operations like the RF/PF mission seem to drag on and on to the point of boredom.

Skillfully, Kennedy planned each approach to pickup zones (PZs) and landing zones (LZs) alike. He made sure that all advantages remained with the Boomerangs. The RF/PF soldiers were repeatedly airlifted and inserted for one- or two-hour ground sweeps, while the flight returned to Xuan Loc to wait patiently for the next call.

When the afternoon sun finally began casting longer shadows, the end of an uneventful day with the RF/PFs seemed imminent. At that point, C&C advised Kennedy and the RF/PFs’American adviser that they were breaking off for the day to coordinate the next day’s operation with the scheduled ground force commander. The adviser acknowledged C&C and immediately shifted his coordination to Kennedy and the Bounty Hunters. His call for the final lift of the day came as the Bounty Hunters were still refueling and rearming, so the flight took off and headed for the PZ without gun cover. Kennedy flew at 70 knots instead of the usual 80, to allow the gunships time to get airborne and catch up.

Approximately 15 kilometers south of Xuan Loc, the long axis of the final PZ ran generally northwest to southeast, perfect for the prevailing southeast winds. Command Warrant Officer Ed McKee, co-pilot of the lead gunship on the second fire team, could easily tell from his vantage point covering the left side of the PZ that the jungle clearing was of ample size. Its width spanned approximately 400 meters, and its length extended about 600. McKee doubted it was a place for an ambush.

The flight proceeded to shoot a trail-formation approach to the south and land on a road that bisected the jungle clearing from north to south. The RF/PFs were waiting, and their faces showed relief that the day’s operation was nearly over and they had escaped enemy contact again. The last sweep had brought them across an area from west of the PZ to the road where they assembled in groups of seven for the final extraction.

On short final approach to the PZ, Kennedy called Bounty Hunter lead to check on our position. I answered: “Boomerang 16, this is Bounty Hunter 6, go ahead and shoot your approach. We haven’t quite caught up, but we have you in sight. We are only about a minute-and-ahalf behind you and will be in position to cover you by the time you touch down.”

“Roger that,” responded Kennedy, mindful of his responsibility for the flight’s security.

As chance would have it, that minute-and-a-half separation we had was critical in the outcome of what happened next. From out of the right side of the LZ, in an area that had just been swept by the RF/PFs, came a sudden and unexpected human wave attack by a battalion-size element of combat-hardened VC soldiers—and we were in perfect position to attack. Had we been a minute earlier or a minute later, either way, it would not have worked out as it did.

The cagey VC had dug squad-size holes in the earth along the western edge of the jungle clearing and camouflaged the openings so that even when the RF/PFs and their American advisers walked right over them, they remained undetected until the moment of attack. Then, camouflaged covers over the emplacements were slung open, and out poured approximately 300 enemy soldiers. With weapons blazing and screaming at the top of their lungs, they charged across the open field toward the Boomerang ships that were loading the RF/PFs for the final extraction. Their American adviser reacted first. From his ground-level view, he was certain the charging horde was about to decimate his small force and him as well. His high-pitched, frantic voice came over the air on the FM flight frequency, immediately requesting gunship support. He could easily see that the enemy numbers were overwhelming. Kennedy, on the other hand, immediately ordered the flight to depart the PZ with the load of RF/PF already on board to gain altitude and save the aircraft and crews.

In trail formation, spaced approximately 30 meters apart, the Boomerangs had an excellent view of the attacking VC. The entire line of slicks began to spray M-60 machine gun bullets into the charging mass. With thousands of bullets flying east and west across the battlefield, a horizontal slice of airspace, 5 feet thick and several hundred yards wide, formed a vicious bandsaw cutting at 2,800 feet per second. Human limbs and body parts flew through the air. By waiting for the slicks to load the RF/PFs before initiating their attack, the enemy troops had unknowingly sealed their own fate. They gave the gunships just enough time to catch up with the flight and to position the lead gunship in exactly the right place to engage with maximum effect. Aligning his sights on the enemy’s leading elements, Stack depressed his rocket button—and nothing happened.

“Shit!” Stack exclaimed, looking bewildered. Frantically he repeated the process twice more and still no rockets fired. Seeing the AC’s dilemma, I took over with the grenade launcher and proceeded to plunk down accurately one 40mm explosion after another along the entire leading axis of the VC charge. Stack reduced the Charlie-model to the slowest attack speed possible in order to prolong my use of the Frog system. Finally, running out of airspace over the field, Stack flew past the attacking horde and let our wingman continue. Turning downwind to set up a daisy chain pattern in order to attack again, Stack was beside himself trying to get the rockets to fire.

“What the f—k’s wrong with this f—king rocket system?” Stack kept repeating as he depressed the firing switch and nothing happened.

Even as he was flying away from the PZ, downwind to set up another attack, Stack kept squeezing the trigger, trying to g the rockets to fire. Suddenly, whoosh! There went a 2.75-inch rocket with a high-explosive warhead, streaking past a friendly aircraft. In my efforts to help, but unbeknownst to Stack, I had recycled the rocket fire-control switch and armed the system. Now, with it working, Stack aligned his sights for another attack and proceeded to send barrage after barrage of rocket salvos into the weakening enemy ranks. In minutes, enemy bodies littered the entire western portion of the LZ. Some were torn beyond recognition, while others simply lay lifeless. Smoke hung over the entire battle area. The American adviser’s high-pitched screams of desperation, heard earlier on the flight frequency when he thought he would be overrun by the charging horde, were now cheers for the Bounty Hunters as they continued to unleash their firepower.

With the organized thrust of their attack broken, the VC milled about in confusion like panicked animals running from a lightning storm. Seemingly oblivious to the deluge of bullets flying at our ship, Stack, now out of rockets, was hovering over the tall grass in the field, routing out enemy who were praying they could maintain concealment. Adrenaline was flowing inside the gunship by the bucketful. The crew chief’s voice crackled over the air for us to turn right. He had a VC with an RPG coming toward us.

“Roger that!” screamed Stack, as he kicked in right pedal, causing the aircraft tail to swing left abruptly. A burst of M-60 machine gun rounds folded up the approaching RPG attacker.

“Left front, sir! Left front!” screamed Davis, spotting another enemy suddenly standing up and leveling his AK-47 at the hovering gunship.

Instantly, hot tracers from Davis’ machine gun ripped through the would-be shooter and sailed off into the distance. With the precision of a seasoned matador, Stack was expertly pedal-turning the gunship right and left to get his door gunners into position to kill. Specialist 4 Heinmiller and Sergeant Davis were having a field day, mopping up the scattered VC with their machine guns. One by one, like birds being flushed, the VC began rising out of the grass and running for the nearest treeline, only to be cut down by the crew’s lethal machine gun fire. Finally, with all ammo expended, Stack began to ascend for departure as one VC jumped up out of the grass and started for the jungle treeline. Thinking I had some Frog rounds remaining in the M-5, I yelled: “Whoa, Bob! Whoa, Bob! Let me get a bead on his ass! Let me Frog the f—ker!”

“Roger that!” Stack responded, aligning the nose of the Huey with the black-pajama image scampering away. I had three grenades left in the Frog, but I didn’t know it at the time. The first explosion hit 25 meters behind the VC, the second 15 meters behind, and he continued running for all he was worth when the upper portion of his body suddenly separated from his bottom half.

Calling his higher headquarters to report the tactical emergency, the American RF/PF adviser on the ground was busy vectoring Air Force assets into the area to take over when Stack and I expended our ordnance. After escorting the Boomerangs to safety, the second fire team, Sandefur and McKee, returned in time to expend their load of rockets and minigun ammo on the retreating enemy. The few VC who remained alive on the battlefield were low-crawling through the grass, toward the tree line. Unrelenting, Sandefur’s rockets and McKee’s minigun cut through them like a knife through butter. Their crew chief and door gunner also expended M-60 rounds while the second Bounty Hunter team worked feverishly to eliminate the remaining enemy.

After clearing with RF/PF adviser and Kennedy, both Bounty Hunter fire teams departed for Xuan Loc to refuel and rearm. Waiting for the Bounty Hunters to finish their attack was Black Pony 15, the Air Force FAC, with a flight of F-4 Phantoms in a holding pattern five miles east of the battle area. Hearing the conversation with the Bounty Hunters end, Black Pony 15 immediately initiated contact with the ground force. Radios crackled as the Air Force pilot’s sharp, cool voice came on the air. “Jaguar 32, this is Black Pony 15 with F-4s in tow. We have 500-pounders and napalm at your disposal, sir.”

“Roger, Black Pony, this is Jaguar 32. Drop your loads immediately to the west of the clearing with all the low-lying smoke. We’d like to block any retreating enemy until our gunships return—over.”

“Understand…immediately to the west of the smoke. Will do! Black Pony, out!”

Within seconds, the area to the west of the battle exploded in smoke and concussion, with fireballs reaching 150 feet in the air. Huge trees were cut like matchsticks and slung sideways for 30 meters by the force of the bombs. The lead jet dropped high-explosive ordnance; the second unleashed liquid fire that engulfed huge portions of the forest. Any enemy who took cover from the 500-pound bombs was quickly burned to death as the second jet dropped its highly flammable jelly.

By the time the Bounty Hunters returned, the entire area was blackened with smoke and fire. The remaining RF/PFs had been evacuated, and the ecstatic American adviser could not say enough about the Bounty Hunters. His gratitude would reach his higher headquarters as recommendations for awards for valor for the air crewmen who had saved his life, and those of the timid RF/PF force that never fired a shot through the whole fight.

Returning to Bearcat, the Boomerangs and Bounty Hunters requested a fly-by that evening, which the tower approved reluctantly. Overflying the airfield in crisp formation, accompanied by deafening rotor noise, was the traditional way the 191st Assault Helicopter Company signaled a day of victory. Each aircraft, at a precisely timed interval, peeled off from the formation, landed on the home pad, then hovered to its respective revetment, where the spent crews would accomplish routine end-of-the-day maintenance. First, however, the tired and hungry men made their way to the mess hall for a well-earned hot meal. Rest would come later—once the postflight maintenance was complete. Over dinner, speculation about kill estimates was rampant. Enemy KIA numbers were confirmed the next day when the RF/PFs went out to count bodies and reported 268 VC dead.

After helping the crew chief rearm and refuel the gunship, a task that few commissioned officers assumed, Bob Stack and I retired to our bunks. Silently, I prayed thanks to God for safe passage that day and for that of my crew and fellow pilots.

Bob Stack eventually reached the rank of colonel and represented the Army at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He contributed invaluable combat knowledge to generations of pilots who followed him. As destiny would have it, however, Bob and I never flew together again.

 

Brigadier General Stanley F. Cherrie, U.S. Army (ret.), served two tours in Vietnam and later served in Operation Desert Storm. His military decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. For additional reading, see: Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason; and Low Level Hell, by Hugh Mills.

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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