Chapter OneScholarship Canceled
President Johnson told his Joint Chiefs of Staff that he would do all that was necessary to prevent the NLF from winning in South Vietnam but was not to take unpopular measures like sending troops to fight in a foreign war, until after the 1964 Presidential Elections. Just let me get elected," he told his military advisers, "and then you can have your war."
The Vietnamese A1-E's buzzed dangerously low as they dropped their lethal napalm along the tree lines and rice paddy dikes. Swooping from within the cloud cover, they used the sun much like the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. It appeared to be working. It reminded one of a hawk hunting unsuspecting rabbits as they wandered among the plants. But today's rabbits were of a different species.... These rabbits had slant eyes and were given the name "Charlie" by their endearing U.S. enemy. "Charlie," as they called the Viet Cong, could take a licking and keep on ticking, even when he was fighting overwhelming odds.
The Vietcong soldiers, their faces caked with dust and perspiration, peered cautiously through the slits within the banana bunker, cringing against the archaic banana bunker walls each time a 500 lb. bomb exploded nearby. Ole' Charlie could hunker down and take everything you threw at him while holding on to his ass like a distressed aeronautical engineer caught in his own wind tunnel.
Who else would have the balls to wait out a blistering bomb attack, venture out afterwards and pick up what didn't explode, placing it strategically along some trail for an unsuspecting Vietnamese or American GI to step on, blowing him to kingdom come.
Oh! By the way, "Charlie" wasn't choosey. He'd stand patiently in line as the well meaning Quaker missionaries, who came over to hand out free fertilizer, distributed it to the local population. It contained the badly needed nitrogen used in making bombs! Why carry it all the way from Hanoi, when you could get two or three hundred pounds, head to the hooch and have the local lady's auxiliary build the satchel bombs needed for the next raid.
Charlie used everything we didn't, killed 58,000 of us and laughed at their ass's as the political morons who got us into this mess were hoisted by their own petards departing the roof tops of Saigon, in 1975.
* * *
The operation was a Chinese cluster screw from the time it started this morning. The "slicks," "gun ships" and our "dustoff" helicopter all met at the staging field southeast of Vinh Long, around 5:30 AM. The C&C, or Commander of the air operation, was adamant about getting an early start. They had a lot of ground to cover. Putting the troops in early would enable him to accomplish most of his mission and get the South Vietnamese soldiers or ARVN, as we called them, out before dark. If you didn't, ole' "ARVN" wouldn't be there in the morning. Half of the little bastards would desert and go home, the rest would end up with their throats cut by the V C population within their own ranks. Every time we watched the wormy little bastards walking nonchalantly to load on the choppers, we wondered how many of them were Captains and Lieutenants in the VC Army. Most of all, we pondered our leader's reasoning for putting us 11,000 miles from home supporting a bunch "no count" rice farmers who hated our ass worse than "Charlie?" But the American G.I. had four things going for him the enemy did not. He was instilled with discipline, adapted easily to any situation, was full of pride and had a big set of balls. Thank God, they prevailed in this unthought of lunatic farm that few of us ever heard about in geography class.
The helicopter gun ships had taken off 30 or 40 minutes earlier roaming above the tree lines and jungle underbrush like sharks feeding among fresh chum. They'd fire at will, shooting anything they felt suspicious, hoping to get return fire. This was known as "recon by fire" designed to elicit return fire that would mark the VC locations prior to the troop insertions. There wasn't much return fire this morning. But, that might have been because one area was never properly re-conned by fire. It was an area containing several suspicious looking banana bunker complexes. They were causing some real heartburn for the gun ship team leader, who requested more time from the C&C. How dare this little Warrant Officer, rain on the Monday morning body count. The C&C could never make Colonel without big body counts. Especially on Monday morning.
"NEGATIVE Mr. Daley, was the Air Commander's reply "You fly, I'll handle the insertion decisions. If you haven't gotten anything by this time you're not going to get anything. We need to get those "slicks" out here now and insert the troops. I have a lot of ground to cover today. Return, refuel and get yourselves back out here as soon as you can, over."
"Roger sir," replied the gun ship platoon leader, whose call sign was Viking 26. "Has Thunderbird 36 and his gun team left the staging area yet?"
"Affirmative 26." was the C&C's reply. "They should be here soon, over."
"Viking 26.... Thunderbird 36.... we're off to your east sir.... you can break away for refuel.... we'll take care of your light work for ya."
"Roger 36.... banana bunkers to the east there ain't been touched ... we were low on "Willie peter" (white phosphorous rockets).... something about them bastards that looks too fresh not to be occupied."
"36.... Roger.... We'll throw our trick bag at 'em.... see if there's anything in it they like, ... see ya when ya get back, over."
Within minutes after the Vikings departed to refuel, the radios were inundated with excited chatter. The Thunderbird gunships got into some kind of contact with "Charlie" while we were lifting off from the staging field.
We could hear the gunship pilots screaming back and forth, warning each other where the enemy fire was coming from. Apparently, T-Bird 36 stirred up a hornet's nest in the bunkers Viking 26 had been wary of.
Taking heavy 51 caliber fire, they continued their lumbering passes, flex guns blasting, door gunners stretching, one foot on the rocket launchers extending below the ship, the other foot in the "hell hole" stretching their safety harnesses to the max as they attempted to suppress the trail of green tracers flying their way. When Charlie fires back at helicopter gunships it means one thing! He's got his shit together, came to play and plans to be 20 points ahead at halftime! He wasn't known for sticking around after he finished sand bagging your ass. Rice time was 6:00 PM and 'Charlie' intended to be at his dinner table in plenty of time.
Thunderbird 36 shouted excitedly over the radio for the rest of his gun ship team to make their passes shorter, providing better cover for each other. They were receiving fire all the way into the target and worst of all, all the way out. Several of the gun ships reported taking small arms fire, some in the cockpits, some in the crew compartment and tail boom.
As we neared the location our Pilot, Major John Rooney, chose to remain at 1500 feet, orbiting in a circle overhead. This enabled us to watch the action without getting in the way. We could still be on the ground within minutes if needed. Rooney, an experienced combat flyer, was deeply respected by his fellow officers and enlisted men. He was flying with Mr. Raker a WO-1 as his co-pilot today. Raker, lacked the sense God gave a goose to shit with and was flying with Rooney at the request of the executive officer, Jerry Roe. Roe hoped that some of Rooney's flying ability would rub off on Raker, eliminating the necessity of having to reassign him to the "1st Cav" as cannon fodder. Rooney truly believed he could salvage Raker. Besides, Dustoff pilots were getting harder and harder to recruit because of Charlie's sharp shooting skills. The fatality rate among the unarmed Dustoff crews was phenomenal these days. Since the Dustoff ship were prohibited from carrying weapons, they were a prize catch for "Charlie" who often received extra rice rations as a reward.
Rooney wasn't what you'd call a senior citizen. He looked to be in his mid thirties, bright red hair, freckled face, tall, lean. A true Irishman in every sense of the word, except he was soft spoken. He had a way about him that instilled awe and respect. He would remain strikingly calm when facing danger and understood how precarious most of our missions were. He never ordered us to do anything he wouldn't have done himself.
Once we settled into an orbit, Rooney advised Thunderbird 36 of our location. Thunderbird 36's only question was the status of Viking 26....
"Thunderbird 36.... Dust Off 80.... Viking 26 and his team were at the fuel bladders.... looked like they were finished refueling.... the slicks are on the way. We left just ahead of the first gaggle.... over."
"Roger that 80.... We need to give our horses a drink and reload.... took a bundle of hits from those banana bunkers down there.... Ain't no telling what kind of damage these crates have got.... but they're still flying!"
"80.... rogers. We're off to the east.... 1.5 angels.... over."
"Roger 80...." Thunderbird 36 to 32.... swing around here by these paddy dikes I just flew over....
"32 ... roger.... How about a little daisy chaining this morning?"
"That'll work! swing over towards me; hit them with the sun to our backs...."
"This ought to get pretty good here in a minute," suggested Rooney. "William.... take it for a minute.... Ohhhhhhh!.... I need to stretch this dad burned football knee of mine, it's killing me."
I know that feeling boss," replied Simmons.
Lighting a cigarette, Rooney turned, placing his mike closer to his mouth. Oh Yeah, you have a scholarship waiting at Alabama, don't you?
"Yes sir! 60 more days and I'll be kicking some "War Eagle" ass sir. Coach Bryant is personally holding a slot for me."
"What position do you play, Simmons," asked Mr. Raker.
"Left Tackle, sir. "The Bear" came to my house personally. Two weeks later I got my draft notice. He did everything he could to get me out of this shit, but it didn't work. So.... Here I sit! Fifteen hundred feet in the air over the asshole of the world.... SHORT!" screamed Simmons.
"Hate to change the subject but you guys need to keep an eye out. We don't wanna get caught in an air strike when they call in the Air Force on those banana bunkers. Gunships will never be able to take them out," mused Rooney.
Our conversation was interrupted as radio transmissions from Thunderbird 36, ordered his wing men to fl y closer and cover each other better. His voice contained a sense of urgency, something not detected earlier. He seemed concerned that they may have bitten off more than they could chew, especially with Viking 26 and his platoon gone for refueling. One gun ship platoon would not be sufficient to handle the hornet's nest that they have stirred up this morning.
"Thunderbird 36 to 32.... close it up! You're gonna get your ass shot off lagging so far behind!"
"Roger.... sorry 'bout that 36.... thing's flying like a septic tank this morning.... Morton here loaded us with enough M60 ammo to sink a battleship.... We was dragging the nose getting off the field this morning."
"Roger that.... He may have done you a favor judging from that last pass.. Those slope bastards are dug in and ready to go today." So you better bring it up here with the rest of us."
As the formation drew closer, and jockeyed for their spots along side each other, the "hog" outfitted with dual rocket pods as well as a handy little hand cranked, M79 grenade launcher took it's position at the front of the formation. Loaded with a plethora of white phosphorous rockets and Heavy explosive rockets, or H.E., as they were called, it's firepower was massive. The Hog earned "Charlie's" respect on many prior occasions, especially when they counted their losses.
"That's better 32,.... great! Mr. Hog? Can you provide the opening entertainment.?"
"30.... Affirmative sir. Ahhhhhh, this short message is brought to on behalf of The DOW Chemical, world's leaders in the extermination of vermin and their real estate since 1880. For a mere pittance plus combat pay, you too, can own your very own franchise, gaining the respect of your competition in a heart beat."
"30.... Save the comedy." Replied the gunship leader. "See what you can do for us today! ... 32, your holding up the freaken parade here!
"Roger 36.... can ya'll slow up just a little?.... Give me a chance to stay tighter on the turns?"
"Roger 32.... sorry 'bout that.... you okay now?"
"Affirmative sir.... Let's get this over with!"
The Cumbersome "A" model gun ships turned final lining up with their targets. Watching from above at 1,500 feet the painted tips of their rotor blades mimicked a majorette's twirling baton. Lumbering clumsily just above the jungle floor, their rotor blades appeared to be struggling for additional gulps of the humid jungle air. Those blades were the only thing keeping the ammo laden death machines from splattering all over the jungle floor.
Picking up airspeed, they flew at no more than 20 to 30 feet above the paddies. Fearlessly holding steady on their targets as the Viet Cong gunners hammered them with withering tracer fire, much of which struck the ships as they neared bunkers. Nevertheless, the gunship team released a torrent of blistering rocket, mini-gun and M60 machine gun fire on the enemy positions. The devastation of the Mini-Guns and rockets was indescribable unless experienced, first hand!
"32 to 36.... there's a bunch of them hauling ass from that tree line to the east, see them? Must be a hundred of the little bastards, right out in the open.
"Roger 32.... what are ya waiting for? Nail there ass's! NOW!" ordered the gunship leader.
A tenacious stream of neon red tracer fire spewed forth from the mini-guns of the three gun ships. It looked as if someone connected neon tubes to the ends of the rotating mini-gun barrels. The light show was accompanied by an ungodly burping sound, ever so familiar to any GI who ever trudged the rice paddies of Vietnam. The tenacious machine gun fire could be seen crisscrossing, slapping and biting at their destination. A gaggle of H.E. and W P rockets whizzed from the launchers of the Hog, almost causing it to stand still in mid air, a reaction to the recoil . Their barrage of rockets struck the banana bunkers with tremendous force, some of them bouncing off the rubbery surface of the bunkers, ricocheting and exploding over the heads of the Viet Cong occupiers who cringed at their arrival.
East of the bunkers, a large concentration of VC were discovered confirming the earlier radio transmissions alluding to the suspicion that something was not right about the bunkers Viking 26 mentioned. It looked like an entire company formation running furiously among the paddies, in an attempt to make the relative safety of the tree line some 50 yards to their north. Within seconds the columns of fleeing V.C. were inundated by a blistering wrath of mini-gun fire, obliterating most of them before they could reach safety.
The men writhed in agony as the hot tracers punctured their flesh, bursting from their bodies, spewing bright red blood well beyond their bodies. One soldier, running like he was late for a bus, ran directly into a stream of mini-gun fire. Within an instant the plethora of sizzling tracers cut him in half at the mid-section. His bottom half took several more steps as the top half fell to the paddies, turning the mud burgundy.
"36 to 32.... Did we rain on their parade or what? Nice shooting guys!
32.... did you copy?" 32.... You got a copy on us?"
32.... Chuck's hit pretty bad.... We got big hydraulic problems!!.... Freaken red alarms going off all over the place.... We gotta get this piece of shit down Mr. Callahan!"