One-Fifth Of a NVN Ace (Almost)

Copyright 2002  Dr. R. E. Sullivan.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author.

One-Fifth Of a NVN Ace (Almost)

Slowboy <> wrote ".... I would like to hear the story about your service to Ho Chi Minh as almost 1/5 of a NVN Ace (Almost)...."

This story begins at the MAG 36 strip at Chu Lai at Oh-Dark-Thirty one morning .  I had my entire Command Group for 1/4 assembled, plus my four rifle company commanders.  I believe the date was 3Jan66, and if not that precise date then very close to it.  We were to embark in two choppers to recon and select LZs for a helo assault landing on Hoa Xuan (Snaggletooth) island, some  15 clicks NW of the helo strip, the following morning. 

Two of my company commanders, my OpsO, and myself were to ride on one UH-34D, along with the two pilots and port and starboard door gunners.   The rest of the staff and my remaining two company commanders were to ride in the other UH-34D.  The second chopper was to stay high at 1500' and be in a position to call for the Sparrow Hawk if the first chopper got hit.  (Sparrow Hawk was a platoon from my battalion that stood by to rescue downed pilots and crew anywhere in the southern area of I Corps.)

The enemy was known to have an LF Company (A20), with the strength of about 150,  armed with A-6 LMGs,  BARs, and  M-1 rifles and carbines, 3.5 and 2.36 bazookas, plus 60mm mortars.  In addition they had several heavy 30s as well as at least a couple of 51 cal (12.7 mm) AA weapons on the island. The latter had a rear sight about 6 inches in diameter in order to properly lead the target, mounted so that it permitted the gunner to stand and shoot. 

My chopper was to survey the prospective LZs from 500', or lower if I requested a low pass.  I carefully briefed the pilots of both choppers with a map as to what I intended to do, what specific areas I wanted to look at, and routes to and from those areas.  I made it very clear that we were not to descend under 500' unless I specifically asked to descend.   So off we went into the wild blue yonder, climbed to 1,500' and came at Hoa Xuan (aka "Snaggletooth") island from the north and headed to Hill 10 on the eastern side which I had identified as our likeliest LZ.  We'd look later at the other possible LZs.

Now this was hardly a C&C (Command & Control) bird with a zillion dollars worth  of electronics as they had for BnCmdrs in the 1stAirCav.. I had no comm with anyone except by shouting and pointing.  As we got to the extreme north end of the island flying south the pilot on my bird downed collective and "split the needles." We began an extremely rapid descent to what I thought would be 500'.  No such luck.  We plummeted through 500' like a rock and the pilot married the needles (engaged the engine with the blades) at about 100.'  and we began flat-hatting south with what must have been minimal ground speed, maybe 50 knots.  What the pilot could have been thinking I haven't a clue.  If he was trying to scare hell out of his passengers he succeeded admirably.  Yet it seemed to take but seconds to approach the ville at the north end of Hill 10. 

As I looked out of the jump seat on the aft side of the starboard door from the gunner, I could see at a distance of maybe 300 meters south and 100 meters west of our track, three men throw the cover off a heavy MG on an AA mount.  There were also some other folks rambling about, but I concentrated on those guys around the gun. I fumbled my 45 out of the holster and had it in hand as I shouted, pointed and screamed at the door gunner to shoot.  The gunner, of course, could see little or nothing forward of the helo, and probably thought I was having some sort of psychotic episode.   I learned later that the pilot had also spotted the enemy MG and headed the helo directly for him.  At about that point I pulled the trigger as fast as I could and got off a full magazine with the 45 in the general direction of the MG as we flew toward and directly over the MG with the pilot jinking around and my arm banging against the side of the helo.  I had no time to shove another magazine in, and learned later how fortunate it was that I didn't have time to reload.

Also at that point the inside of the chopper became full of what seemed to be buzzing bees accompanied by sounds like a huge hammer hitting a metal chamber pot.  The sound was deafening and the helo shuddered like the proverbial dog defecating peach pits.  AvFuel consisting of 115 octane fuel was in a fine mist and also filled the air making it hard to breathe as the pilot did the worst possible thing he could do--pulling back the cyclic (making the aircraft clilmb) and wrapping turns on.  This caused us to gain altitude, lose ground speed and made us an even better target.  Green tracers from several weapons swarmed around the aircraft, and sparked off the blades, but we weren't hit again.  Not to worry.  By that time we were on the southern extremity of Hoa Xuan and the pilot made a beeline for a small island, Binh An (2) directly to our south.   There the pilot made what was then called in the trade a "Precautionary Landing" to assess damages.   We all crawled, very shakily, out of that accursed machine.  After thanking whatever deities we attended, we began to inspect the damage.  My OpsO had been sitting cross legged between the door gunner and me with a map on his lap on which our proposed route over the island was grease penciled.  The map, quite naturally, had disappeared in all the confusion and was probably even then in the hands of the A-20 Local Force VC Commander.  The latter was easy to pick out of the crowd because he was the one with a big grin on his face.  A 51 cal (12.7 mm) round had come up exactly 6 inches aft from the right cheek of my OpO's tail, followed by dozens more punching through at 6" intervals through the cabin floor.  (I'd guess the floor was made of heavy aluminum or maybe an alloy of magnesium, possibly 3/8 of an inch thick, but I'm not sure of the material.)   These rounds had blasted minute bits of metal all over the cabin.  These had shredded the white fabric covering the inside of the cabin, and the fabric hung down in long tatters like Spanish Moss from the trees in South Carolina.  The port to the avionics section wasn't opened until the aircraft got back to MAG 36, and I saw it there later that afternoon.  The only way to describe the avionics section is to say it looked as though two or three frag grenades, along with a claymore or two had been thrown back there and detonated.  The chopper was leaking fuel in a gush.  If that bird was supposed to have had self sealing gas tanks then the taxpayers were due a refund. 

Most curious of all in terms of damage to the aircraft was the flat tire on the starboard wheel, and several rather large holes and dents in the struts that formed the landing gear on the starboard side.  (Gee.  Wonder how that happened?  Well, we know, don't we?  But we ain't gonna tell, are we?)  Several of us had picked up shards of metal from the rounds exploding through the deck of the helo, but these were easily temporarily repaired with a band aid.  But only those of us who were in the belly of  that beast, and the lady who did our laundry, will ever know how frightened we were.  

I seriously thought of holding a summary court martial and shooting the pilot then and there, or was it the other way around (shoot first, court martial later)?  Then thought better of it when he was nice enough not to complain about the holes I'd shot in the struts and the flat tire on his aircraft.  After all, he had signed that aircraft out, and might be held accountable for the damages.  Besides that Sparrow Hawk was on the ground by that time and there were too many witnesses.   My Command Group and I rode out on one of the birds that had inserted Sparrow Hawk.

Now, just suppose I'd done enough damage to the struts of that accursed chopper so the landing gear had collapsed on landing?  It's possible, don't ya know?  Then supposing when the landing gear collapsed the blades had coned down, cut off the tail boom and rolled the chopper, doing strike damage.  I'd have been responsible, for sure.  And, I guess, the way I figure it, if I shot down just four more choppers I'd have qualified for being a NVN Air Ace.  I do believe what I did ought to be good for at least a NVN Air Medal.  Hell, I ain't greedy.  A DFC would be nice, but I'll settle for an AM.  Now, what's the address and telephone number of the Department of NVN Veteran's Affairs Office in Hanoi....

(Please Note:  As I probably proved above, I ain't no pilot, but I'm definitely guilty of being a pilot wannabee.  My only experience until that time came in the mid-50s when, for a short time I was S-3Alfa, and then the S-3 of HMR-163.  We had fifteen HRS-3s and were based in Opama just north of Yokosuka.  In those capacities I wrote the flight sked, and if a pilot wanted flight time he had to trade instructional time to teach me to fly. That's called "blackmail" in polite society, and my only excuse is that I was desperate.  I knew I'd spend the rest of my time in the Corps crunching gravel and when I had the chance to fly I made the most of it.  At the time we were short of pilots and it was legal to fly a Safety Pilot in the left seat.   The only thing a Safety Pilot had to know was how to land the bird in a worst case scenario.  (Was in a bull session one evening with the CO and XO of the squadron discussing flying technique and landing angles in a HRS-3, and I described landing as a "controlled crash."  For some reason they both objected but I still maintain that was one valid way of looking at it.)  You may be sure that I got more air time than any pilot in the squadron.  Selfish?  You bet.  I loved to fly those HRS-3s, which essentially was the little brother and immediate predecessor to the UH-34D. Where they differed radically was that the HRS-3 had an engine that could have been swapped with that of any riding mower over 10 HP.  If you were at a LZ at 5,000 feet altitude, the temp was 95 degrees, and you had a full load of fuel, you had to make a "roll off take off" with no one in the belly to get it off the ground.  Pulling up into a "ground hover" prior to take off, forget it. "Density Altitude" and all that stuff.    If the HRS-3 had 10 less horsepower it would have been a glider, except it would have had the glide angle of a brick.  Frightening thought, that.  All of us pedestrians have heard of "auto rotation" when the helo descends without an engine and gently lands, passengers and crew intact.  The helo guys told us that every time they came out to do a fam briefing.  Well, gotta tell you they was just funnin' us.  From late '56 to '58 I was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, California, and joined the Flying Club and got my license to pilot tiny little stiff wings.  Later, in Viet Nam, when HUEY slicks became available, I got in lots more stick time, but that's another story.  IMHO few things in life exceed in pure pleasure the experience of flying a chopper.

I am going to do a follow up on the story above that will deal with what happened the next day.  It will not be pretty and will draw flak, I'm sure.  'Twill be interesting to get people's reaction.)   SF Sully