This is part 2 leading up to the story of a minor combat engagement at an outpost in South Vietnam called Hoa Binh. It is representative of Seawolf combat operations during the withdrawal of U.S. riverine forces and the turnover of naval operations to the South Vietnamese in 1971.
HA(L)-3, the only Navy attack helicopter squadron in Vietnam, was a unique concept designed to support the Navy riverine forces operating in the Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam. The squadron was a child of the Vietnam war, being commissioned, operated, and finally decommissioned entirely within the Delta of South Vietnam.
If you missed the first installment of this story, "Scramble Seawolves!" Part 1, you might want to go back and read it first. Much of the background, technical detail, and references in the following story is explained in that article which is prologue to this one.
Under normal circumstances, against the expected small arms (anything less than .50 cal, or 12.7 mm) armament the enemy employed, the fire team could expect to be reasonably safe from hostile fire if operating above 1000 feet. While you could be hit at that altitude, the time for unguided weapons to get on target, barring blind luck, would be greater than the time for the crew to notice the fire, and be able to suppress it. We always felt that we had a tremendous advantage against small arms from 1000 feet because we knew where our rounds were going. We used tracers and could see the impact of most of our rounds, either in the mud, the water, or in the target. The enemy, on the other hand was firing into the air, without tracers and could only guess where his rounds were going relative to a moving target at an unknown altitude. I don't know why they didn't use tracers. They must have thought they gave away their location. In fact, their own muzzle flashes gave away their location, day or night. From a helicopter, it is easy to see the muzzle flash of a gun fired AT YOU from the ground, even in daylight.
At night, the lead aircraft operated without navigation lights, except for the white tail light. The lower anti-collision light was off and the upper one was taped up so that it could only be seen from level with or above the helicopter, not from the ground. The trail aircraft flew blacked out. The top of one rotor blade was painted white in order to improve the ability of other aircraft to see the friendly green helicopter from above against the green ground. It worked quite well in daylight.
If not operating above 1000 feet, we were down right on the deck. We avoided the airspace in between and called it the dead-man zone. If on the deck, we were really ON THE DECK and at top speed consistent with maneuverability, about 100 knots. I have come back from low level fire fights with mud on my windshield splashed there by our own machine gun fire.
I'm still a little embarrassed that I broke out a chin bubble once, showering my copilot with plexiglass and branches from a expertly "camouflaged" dead limb which was sticking out of a "hostile" bush. No harm done except to pride. No mishap report either. We flew the bird on down to Binh Thuy, got a new one, and went back to work. (We didn't hide such mishaps, the squadron merely did not allow itself to sweat the small stuff, and in the great scheme of things, a chin bubble was trivial. No Official notice taken. None needed. We pushed the envelope a little too much. Learned. And went on with the war. Sensible.)
When on the deck, we tried to stay below tree top level, using the trees to mask us, and using the element of speed, surprise and firepower to protect us. We had the old west gunfighter attitude that no one could outdraw us in a quickdraw fight. We depended on our gunners to suppress any fire at low altitude. Yes, I said the element of surprise. You're right, you can hear the helo coming, but at low altitude, you can't really tell where he is coming from. The sound bounces off the trees, rebounding in from all directions if the helo is truly low. I have on several occasions, burst into a clearing and found someone looking in the wrong direction, to the amusement of friendly SEALS, and to the distress of enemy soldiers who usually didn't survive the mistake.
Sometimes they did survive. On my VERY FIRST flight in-country, I was co-pilot for a logistics flight out of the home base at Binh Thuy. This was the normal break-in duty for "newbies". A safe enough way of easing the new guy in to life in the Delta for two good reasons. First, the logistics helos were HH-1K models, with plenty of power compared to the BRAVOs, so the new guys could get some current time relatively painlessly with a little extra power available in this extremely high DA environment. They were only armed with two pintel-mounted M-60 door guns. These helos were called SEALORDS to differentiate them from Seawolves. We did not want anyone to mistake them for gunships. Two M-60 door guns doth not a gunship make, as I was about to find out. (Anybody listening out there?) Second, the SEALORDS mission was usually logistics. No combat, especially with "newbie" pilots.
The pilot was Dick Barr, one of the nicest guys, best officers, and finest pilots I ever served with. We found ourselves down at Solid Anchor, the base carved out of the mangrove swamp at the southern tip of the Delta. Truly a Fort Apache. Completely surrounded by the worst terrain, and the densest concentration of VC remaining in the Delta. We were delivering parts for one of Seawolf Det One's birds which was down for some forgotten malady. No sooner had we arrived than the det was alerted for an emergency MEDEVAC. One of the riverine boats had taken a rocket hit, and was calling for immediate MEDEVAC. Since there was only one up Seawolf, and the Seawolf det was the only air element at Solid Anchor, the det O-in-C asked Dick if he would perform the MEDEVAC and the lone Seawolf would cover. It was daylight and the area had quieted down after the ambush had sprung. People were hurting, so he agreed. (I was not consulted. After all, I was a newbie, and had no valid input, not that I was smart enough to object.) It should be routine. (You may have guessed by now that it wasn't going to be routine, otherwise, it wouldn't end up published in Rotor Review).
The Det One bird, Seawolf 17, was navigating, so I had nothing to really do since the SEALORDS had no weapons for the copilot or pilot. Having nothing to do is not good. There is too much time to think. I imagined VC under every bush, behind every tree, cunning traps featuring overwhelming numbers..... John Wayne....the Green Berets.... Hollywood had really done a number on me. I had obviously seen too many war movies in my youth for my own good.
We located the riverine group in a narrow canal not too far away. Most of the boats had nosed into the banks, alternating sides, to provide security for the MEDEVAC. One of the boats popped a colored smoke grenade to mark himself. We were then directed by radio to ANOTHER boat four or five more up the line along the canal. Simple yet clever.
Lesson One: never signal your intentions to the enemy. We had a reference, got the relative winds, and misled the enemy, by a very simple expedient. Nothing complicated. Just never give them an even break, even if you don't think they are around, just in case your Estimate Of The Situation is less than accurate (what?, admit you are wrong?) and the bad guys were still around watching... and waiting for you to get sloppy.
We commenced our approach with the gunship leading the way, then circling protectively as our approach was completed. It was a "Tango Boat", an LCM-6 converted to a troop transport. It had a flight deck on top, sort of. When we had touched down, our SKIDS just fit the deck, the aircraft hung over the side fore and aft. We were perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of the boat.
The seven wounded sailors, Vietnamese, RAN OUT AND JUMPED IN. Dickie Barr, whom I later came to know as a fine gentleman, blasted forth with some salty epithets which actually shocked me. (They shall not be repeated here being unnecessary to the telling of the story, and for fear of offending the delicate sensibilities of the reader.) Only one of the guys had a bandage, and it was on his knee. Whatever was wrong with his knee, it hadn't slowed him down. Charitably, I'll speculate today that they were suffering from shock from the rocket hit. That day, we weren't ready to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially Dick. Some emergency. They were quickly loaded aboard, sitting on the floor.
Seawolf 17 scouted a path out. Right over the thick row of trees and brush lining the canal was a wide rice paddy which would provide a good acceleration area after takeoff. We needed to get as much speed as possible before leaving the relative safety of low level to climb through the dead-man zone. If an engine went, we could auto to open ground. There was no place to hide so we were unlikely to fly over an unseen enemy while at a vulnerable low altitude. Any threat would come only from the trees lining the edges of the paddy. Dick agreed to the plan.
We took off, with the gunship leading us out. Forward flight, pop over the tree line and down to the deck to accelerate. Dick was watching the leader, the crewmen were watching the treeline, and I was just watching. As we crossed the paddy, for some reason, my eyes rested on a small bush out in the middle of the paddy, just as the Seawolf passed over it. Probably because it was the only feature on the face of the paddy. Out of the bush rose a man in black pajamas who raised an AK-47 assault rifle. He let fly half a clip straight up at the Seawolf passing over him at 30-40 feet. Immediately, I could hear the added din of the Seawolf gunners who opened up on the treeline. They were past the man in an instant, and WE WERE HEADED RIGHT FOR HIM.
"There he is! There he is!" I shouted. "Where? WHERE?" shouted Dick and the crewmen. I couldn't say another word before I was preempted by a scream on the radio; "I'M HIT! I'M HIT! CHECK MY BALLS! CHECK MY BALLS!" (Sorry reader, this part IS necessary to the story)
In less time than it takes to tell, we were on top of him ourselves. He let fly the rest of his clip. I heard it loud and clear, but not as loud as the WHACK that went with the gun noise. Like a rock hitting a tin roof. We were by him. Dick zoom-climbed the aircraft and jinked left to unmask a gunner, continuing to follow the leader who had also started a climb after a little erratic movement. I could see the left gunner of Seawolf 17 standing on the skid firing back along his tail under our nose at the bush behind us.
A quick look at my pilot and confirmation from the crewmen, and we knew that someone in the other helo had been wounded, perhaps very seriously.
"He's back there in the middle of the paddy in that bush we flew over, let's go get him!" "No", replied Dick, "we're following One Seven outta here. Crew, open fire on the treeline behind us."
A voice on the radio from the river boats asked for a report. He got a curt "standby" from Seawolf 17. Shortly, 17 broadcast for all interested parties on the circuit; "It's all right, pilot took a round through the meat of the thigh, he'll be all right, nothing vital damaged.....(long pregnant pause for effect)... His balls are intact." There was a muffled audible chuckle. We all laughed with nervous relief. "Dick, why don't we go back and grease that _______?" I asked. "Because newbie," he explained patiently, "we aren't a gunship, and he's not worth it." "But we have gunners." I countered. "No, Tom, we have crewmen who have machine guns, that doesn't make them gunners."
Lesson Two: Two door guns doth not a gunship make. A gunner is a competent, well-trained individual who is cool under fire. Like the gunners in Seawolf 17.... While their aircraft was lurching in recoil from the pilot reflexes on being hit, amidst sudden loud gunfire from an unknown direction (right under them), and a loud WHACK, an obvious hit, Seawolf 17's gunners immediately placed fire on the most likely source of threat, absent seeing a source. Then the left door gunner figured it out and laid suppression astern of us as we performed that ancient and time-honored military maneuver; hauling ass outta there. Our "gunners" never fired a shot until past the threat. They never saw the guy, in fact, I'm the only one of us who ever saw him. Gunners are the product of a lot of training and practice, and are only as good as the crew coordination that supports them. Dick was right, we didn't have gunners, Seawolf 17 did. I would see this lesson reinforced many times. I learned it. I believe it.
In retrospect, that VC wasn't very good. Out of a full magazine of 30 rounds, at targets 30 feet overhead, only two hit anything. One drew blood, one drew none, only aluminum. It ricocheted off the stringer between MY legs. Welcome to Vietnam, Tom. What a start! It could be a long year..... or maybe a short one.
Getting back to tactics.... A rocket run usually began from about 1000 feet and sixty knots, so that there would be some allowance for acceleration in the dive, actually a shallow glide. After firing several rockets, one at a time, in order to adjust between shots (no point in spraying them against small targets given the limited load), the helo would break away from the target area so as to avoid overflying the target. Overflying the target is not healthy. Even a poor shot who is still on his feet, can probably ventilate a helo (and the crew) passing over at a couple of hundred feet. (Refer to the chorus above). It is also hard to shoot straight down from the helo. Much easier to shoot out, ahead, or behind. Should it be desirable to continue rocket attacks, the breaking helicopter can continue his turn away and climb back up in a racetrack pattern falling in behind the trail as he makes his rocket attack behind you.
Unfortunately, the BRAVO didn't have the energy to continue this pattern for long. The pattern rapidly collapsed on itself because of the inability of the helo to get back up to the top with sufficient airspeed, to cover the trail aircraft break. If you continued it for too many runs you ended up in a slow circle at low altitude, in the dead-man zone, where an enemy had an even chance to hurt you. The energy just wasn't there. If we were going to continue rocket attacks, it was probably against an area target which was not returning fire. In this case, the fire team would disengage after the run, climb to 1000 feet and make a leisurely reposition for another run. If there was opposition, we would not usually continue rocket runs, instead we would wheel into a gun circle. This was where we usually wanted to be.
Since we featured our gunners anyway, the normal tactic was to break off the run to the left into a right circle which would allow maintaining the high speed developed in the dive, and would allow the right, more powerful gun to be on target. The trail could make his rocket run and be covered by the lead's gunner as he broke away, maintaining multiple guns on target. The circle could regain altitude while standing off, and avoid two sins: excessive and unnecessary time in the dead-man zone near a known, armed, and pissed-off enemy, and not having weapons brought to bear on the target area. In this case two dominant weapons. A variation was a right break to let the left gunner work out as the trail fired his rockets, continuing into a 270 degree turn passing the lead to the trail as he broke left, falling in behind him but ending with both right guns on target. This would sometime be used because of the proximity of friendly troops.
We tried to avoid firing towards friendlies because of ricochets and the possibility of overshoots, which were more likely than the gunners being off in axis. We would run in along the axis of the enemy front and break over the friendlies so they could assist and provide us some mutual covering fire. If we took a serious hit we would also be more likely to go down among friendlies.
When in a circle, the trail always flew so that he was not on the opposite side of the circle from the FTL in order to avoid ricochets from the other helo.
Scramble Seawolves! Part 3
Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips