VIETNAM: TOUR OF DUTY
8mm Movie Footage shot in-country, 1968-1969
August 3, 2021, Shelton WA
Recon Team Extraction Under Fire
It’s 2138 hours, August 3, 2021, and all is quiet except for a pair of Apache pilots shooting night approaches into a little airport nearby. Fort Lewis is close enough to remind me of my 27-year career as an Army helicopter pilot. After graduating from Army Flight School with class 67-11 in August of 1967, I was more than a little surprised not to be dispatched immediately to Vietnam instead of reporting to Fort Knox and A Troop, 7/1st Air Cav. The Blackhawks were training for deployment to Vietnam, disembarking from Long Beach, California, in January of 1968 aboard the US Navy Ship UPSHURE. Except for picking up a merchant seaman north of Hawaii who had a ruptured appendix and the USS Pueblo incident, our 28-day trip was leisurely. As a Warrant Officer, I had it very good compared to the E-6s and below. Boredom set in early on, so I took over putting the daily ship’s newspaper out. It was called the UPSHURE UNICORN. As the Editor, I rescued 3 EM from their below-decks purgatory. They did most of the work on the newspaper and could spend much of their time up in ‘Officer Country’ where the air didn’t reek of vomit, and they could look out and see the ocean. All three had college degrees.
We ‘stormed’ the beach at Vung Tau in January/February and joined our advance party at Dion just north of Saigon. I was one of 10 pilots sent to experienced aviation units for in-country training. A short helicopter ride brought us to Sherwood Forest, home of the 173d Assault Helicopter Company, the Robinhoods. Instead of returning to the Apache, we were infused into a sister Air Cav unit, B Troop, 7/17th, located at Camp Enari just south of Pleiku in the Central Highlands. What a surprise- cool evenings and not too hot during the day. The downside- we’d be flying in mountainous terrain, no 10-ship rice paddy LZs, and no place to safely autorotate if shot down.
By April 1968, I made aircraft commander fly in the lift section. I had just passed my 22nd birthday in March. My first big test of flying skills came shortly afterward.
After flying an early mission, we returned to Dak To to hot-refuel when we got a call from our CO, Major Longhefer inquiring if I could take a mission. “I’ll be up in 5 minutes,” I shot back. The brief told us we’d be extracting a recon patrol who had been in contact with NVA troops off the south side of a mountain. Approaching the area we could see two of our LOHs hovering above the trees and our CO orbiting high above. The steep side of the mountain was thickly covered with tall trees. The 10-man recon team had been put in for a B-52 ARC-LIGHT BDA bomb damage assessment on an underground enemy complex. The team made contact with NVA troops and suffered one KIA, their RTO, who was killed by a mortar round.
The only place they could be pulled out was in a bomb crater. The crater was formed when a bomb with a delay fuse buried itself in the mountainside before exploding. The blast formed the crater but did not open much of the overhead forest canopy. I found out years later from one of our Scout pilots that he had been asked to see if they could make it into the cave formed by the explosion. They told Longhofer it was too tight to get in. Hearing that I was inbound, they were sure a bigger Huey wouldn’t do it either.
Not knowing this, I charged to get guidance from the OH-6 to the opening leading down to the crater. It wasn’t until I was right at the entrance to the hover hole that I could see the crater and troops. It was going to be tight, real tight. We hovered forward, then down, then forward some more. My crew chief and door gunner were hanging out and looking back as the nose passed over a couple of tall stumps that the tail boom had to sit between. In some more and down a little, put the nose of the Huey a few feet off the crater wall. The tail rotor was now sitting a few feet from the stumps. The cabin floor was almost 6 feet above the bottom of the crater. We couldn’t go any lower. The LOH drivers said the tall trees swallowed us, and they couldn’t see us unless they hovered directly behind me. There was no sky visible overhead.
We began loading the first 5 guys as they were boosted up to the skid and into the helicopter. I had to hold a dead-steady hover as people piled in. Suddenly the scout pilots told me mortar rounds were landing upslope from us. My only reference was the young RTO’s body lying face-up in the red dirt 2 feet below my boots. His radio lay beside him, with dozens of shrapnel holes, as did his body. I thought about his parents for a second and hoped they would be spared the details of their son’s death. That scene still haunts me to this day.
Mortar rounds marched closer as we finished loading and began backing up and out to exit the cave of trees. Just before clearing the entrance, a mortar landed close enough to see the flash through the trees ahead of us. It was a peddle turn and wild dive down the mountainside to escape incoming fire. We had to make one more trip to recover the remaining soldiers. Fifteen minutes later, we dropped off the first load and returned to the crater. As we got into our hover, mortar rounds exploded up-slope from us, and we were getting closer. With the last men in a mortar round landed down-slope behind the helicopter. They had us bracketed. I got a lot of ‘advice’ from the LOH pilots and C&C ship to expedite my departure. I marked this date on my Short-Timer’s calendar. I had eight more months to go. There would be more marks on my calendar before I returned home.
Without guidance from my crew chief and door gunner, we couldn’t have pulled off this extraction. It’s the tightest place I’ve ever put a helicopter.
CW4 Michael Jones USAR RET
B Troop 7/17th Air Cav 1968-1969
Vietnam War Story: Flare Mission Gone Bad
By CW4 Mike Jones
Stationed with B Troop Blues 7/17th Air Cav, Jan 1968-Jan 1969
Of all the crazy flying we did flying flare missions had its own unique ways of dying. And they make for bad dreams if you happen to survive a flare accident.
Most of the attacks on our bases occurred at night. The Army’s solution- turn the night into day by dropping very bright magnesium parachute flares from helicopters over the camp’s perimeter. The MK-24 parachute flare was in wide use for this purpose. It puts out over 2-million candlepower for about 3 minutes as it descends under a 16-foot diameter parachute. It burned at 5000ºF and could illuminate a large area bright enough to read by. When a camp came under attack, quick reaction aircrews scrambled into the air, usually a couple of gunships and a UH-1D or H flare ship. The MK-24 flare is housed in an aluminum canister about 36-inches long and 4 1/2-inches in diameter weighing about 30-pounds. Located at the top of the canister are two setting knobs, the first a delay timer setting the time in seconds that the flare will fall to clear the aircraft and deploy the parachute at the right altitude to give maximum illumination over the target area. This timer is triggered when a steel lanyard with its end clipped to a short static line attached to the helicopter. When the flare is tossed out by the crew chief it falls to the end of the static line initiating a jerk that starts the timer. It only takes a 12-pound pull to initiate the flare. The lanyard breaks away from the helicopter and the falling flare counts off the number of seconds of freefall before the parachute deploys. The second timer knob determines the number of seconds from initial lanyard pull to flare ignition. The flare now descends under parachute, burning white hot for three minutes, The aircrew must determine these timer values before takeoff and replace a plastic protective cover over the setting knobs and coiled up lanyard to prevent accidentally pulling on a dangling lanyard. As many as 60 flares were stacked on the cabin floor just ahead of where the door gunner and crew chief sat. The pilot would do a quick engine start and be airborne in 5 minutes from initial call to launch. The helicopter would quickly climb to drop altitude, usually around 3,000 feet above the camp. Below the gunships were getting into position to make runs along the perimeter. The flare ship pilot would set up his run upwind of the drop area and tell the guys in back to get ready to drop. The door gunner, sitting on the right side of the cabin would pick up a flare and place it in his lap and remove the plastic safety cap. He then handed it to the crew chief sitting on the left side. The flare lanyard was snapped to the helicopter’s static line. On command the crew chief would toss the flare out. In our case the right cargo door was sometimes closed. The mission would continue as corrections were made to altitude, and drop points for optimum and overlapping illumination coverage.
It was a surreal scene viewed from above as the Cobra’s worked under the flare light. Done right we could keep constant illumination over the camp with overlapping flares. We could keep this up for a complete fuel load, more than 2 hours.
On this particular July night in 1968 my crew was on 5-minute alert at Phan Thiet airfield. B Troop’s camp was a hastily built site about a mile south of the airfield just outside Phan Thiet’s perimeter. The call came to me late in the evening to scramble, the camp was under attack! 5 minutes later we were airborne and climbing to altitude. Off to the south we could see our guard towers’ 50 cal machine guns raking the southern perimeter fences. Trip flares had been set off by a 16-man enemy sapper team. They had been caught in the open. We began chucking flares out at 3,000 feet and soon the whole area was lit up. All the sudden there was a loud explosion and bright flash in the back of our Huey. A flare had ejected inside the cabin. We had 10 seconds before the flare ignited. I began an emergency descent. We had only dropped a few flares. 10 seconds passed and we were still alive, but where was the flare? I turned around to see what was going on behind me. The door gunner was doubled over and bleeding! He had just handed a flare to the crew chief when the flare and parachute ejected from its aluminum tube. He had inadvertently pulled the arming lanyard while removing the plastic safety cap before handing it to the crew chief. The flare exited out the left side of the helicopter. The outer tube fired back across the cabin striking the door gunner in the kneecap, continued to the right striking the closed cargo door and bounced back out the left side of the helicopter. The flare and parachute didn’t hang up on the skid or other parts of the airframe. We lucked out that the parachute didn’t end up in the tail rotor. The crew chief lost his left kneecap. We were finished for the night. There were tales of others who weren’t so lucky when flares had ignited inside the helicopter.