SP4 Wallace R. Collins
Phoenix Rising – Hueys in I Corps
22 May 2006
When I arrived in Vietnam on the 18th August 1970, I was assigned to fly an OH58-A for the First Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at An Khe, in the Central Highlands of II Corps. I spent most of my time screening for a division that was trying to avoid major battles prior to Nixon's troop reduction programme. But as fate would have it, it wasn't to last.
When the 4th
Division finally stood down in November 1970, I was transferred to an assault helicopter unit in northern I Corps, C Company, 158th
Aviation Battalion, the "Phoenix", assigned to the 101st
Quang Tri, 40 miles north of the 101st
Airborne Division's forward division base camp near Hue, was the last major town in South Vietnam before the DMZ
. The MACV-SOG
compound was located on the western side of airfield there. An assortment of wood framed barracks type buildings, the compound lay adjacent to a small asphalt landing pad just large enough to accommodate a platoon of ten Huey helicopters. As a newly assigned W-1 to the Phoenix, I was one of several “newbies” getting his initial security and intelligence briefing prior to flying my first CCN
(Command and Control, North) mission into Laos.
The SOG compound was subtly different from the rest of the heavily guarded Quang Tri airfield and combat base in that the security was even greater. The helicopter pad was referred to by the pilots and operators who flew from it as an FOB (Forward Operations Base).
The buildings in the compound were clustered around the helicopter pad. We couldn't help but notice the special features of their construction. They were elevated above the ground. Wooden shutters covered the normally screened upper portion of the walls. Security was tight, very tight. The FOB compound was enclosed in its own fenced-in perimeter, well within the larger Quang Tri airfield security perimeter.
The newbies along with the veteran pilots, field into the briefing room setting. A Special Forces Captain named Correll gave the briefing. He began with, “Everything we do here is classified top secret. No one, and I mean NO ONE, is permitted to discuss any activities here with anyone not involved in the mission. You are not permitted to discuss the missions in letters home.”
Being a young warrant officer, forewarned back in the States by Captain David Anderson, I made up my mind that I would keep my camera handy anyway. I thought to myself that I would finally have some opportunities to take some interesting photo's.
As part of the first mission, we were shown a map of I Corps, Laos and southern North Vietnam, that covered an entire wall in the briefing room. The map showed all confirmed NVA anti-aircraft positions in those areas. The enemy emplacements were marked with a number of different coloured pins – green, blue, and red – which indicated the size of the NVA weapon at each designated location.
The map was literally chequered with multicoloured pins with occasional clusters of pins indicating very heavy enemy anti-aircraft concentrations. The Special Forces officer asked if we knew what the size of the minimum weapon on the map was. With all the experience gained over my three months in country, I quickly spoke up and said, “.51 Cal?” He smiled and shook his head, “No, Mr. Marshall, these are all larger than 12.7 millimetre.”
I gulped. This meant that all of the pins represented 23mm guns above. Collectively, the pilots in the group drew a deep breath. A cold chill swept down my spine and didn't stop until it reached the ends of my toes.
This meant that if the enemy could see us, they could shoot us down, regardless of our altitude. Within the confines of South Vietnam, we generally considered ourselves safe from small arms fire at altitudes of 2,500 feet above ground level. The rules of the game had just changed, decidedly in favour of the enemy. We were going to operate 80 knot Hueys at World War I air speeds, in a radar controlled anti-aircraft environment that was dangerous for “fast movers” flying at 500 knots.
The briefing continued with a Special Forces NCO describing the SOG teams, their assignments, and personnel. He told us that the NVA in these recon areas were “not known to take prisoners of war” among the Green Berets, their Laotian and Vietnamese team mates, or the aircrews that supported them. This bit of information jolted us. Then it got worse. We were informed that there would only be one attempt at extraction if we “went down”. After that one effort, we'd be “on our own”. Simply put, it was just too easy for the NVA to set up an ambush a second rescue attempt.
This was not going to be the fun and games I had thought. I quickly comprehended the gravity of these life and death combat operations that my predecessors had been facing daily. There was nothing between the two extremes. These missions were the ultimate game of “all or nothing”. Waves of icy chills cascaded down my spine. Others sitting near me grimaced in the same sudden awareness that had hit me. We were committed as players in this very special contest of warrior against warrior.
No POWs, simply life or death. The gravity of the meaning underlying the warnings in the briefing overpowered the highly professional presentation. Following the advice of other veteran Phoenix pilots, I was going to carry “cherry bomb hand grenades” in both of my lower leg pockets. If we had a choice, then mine would be to fight, escape and evade.
The briefer told us that if we were “lost” over the border, we'd be listed as “killed in action – body not recovered” since we were not officially operating in either Laos or North Vietnam.
We were then given the security clearance papers acknowledging the top-secret nature of the work we would be performing. We were also given the rules or engagement to sign regarding when our crews would be cleared to fire their weapons. All of us signed the papers, knowing that it was only a formality. Once we crossed the imaginary “fence” into Laos or North Vietnam, anyone we saw would be the enemy.
When the briefing was over, the Special Forces captain told our platoon leader to standby, ready to launch our Hueys on short notice. He reported that there was a recon team of two Americans and six Montanyards in contact over the boarder. The “studies and observations group”, as the cross-boarder teams were called, had been compromised by North Vietnamese patrols. The team was running for their lives through mountains over the border in North Vietnam. A deadly game of cat and mouse was being played, and it was being played on the cat's turf. Each time the NVA closed in, the SOG team would ambush them, then escape and evade to a different location to set up another. They did this to make the enemy pay a heavy price for their pursuit and to provide the team with a chance to break contact so that the choppers could get in and extract them.
The SOG operators understood the limitations of the helicopters. They were the best of America's soldiers – courageous, highly trained, volunteering for the most incredibly dangerous missions. But they were totally dependent on our helicopters to get them in, and then to get them out and safely home again. They knew the risks of helicopter extractions. To request a “hot extraction” could result in a helicopter being shot down right on top of them. The group leader knew that if contact could not be broken, his last resort was a string extraction “under fire”. The SOG team also understood they were on a 70\30 mission into North Vietnam where 70% of them routinely failed to return.
In the briefing, they warned us to expect “hot pickup zones”. The “Redskins”, Cobra gunships from D Company 158th
Aviation Battalion, would provide close air support. An OV-10, a small twin-engine turboprop FAC (call sign Covey) would be overhead with jets and Skyraiders if needed. “Jolly Green Giants”, armoured search and rescue helicopters based in Thailand, were also on standby, in case we needed them to extract us. Another chill went down my spine.
When the briefing was over, we filed out in an orderly manner, went down the steps toward the helicopter pad. We checked out our aircraft on more time. When we were done, we sat around our aircraft discussing anything and everything but the mission.
Twenty minutes later, Captain David Nelson, our platoon leader, came running out of the briefing room. “Start 'em!”
Within seconds, the main rotor blades had been untied by the crew chiefs and the blades displaced abeam. Co-pilots began the starting sequence. The pinging of ignition plugs was call to action as the gas turbine engines spooled up, driving the rotor system. Two minutes later we departed, a flight of four Hueys, climbing to an altitude of 4,500 feet.
We flew just below a base of purple-grey overcast, and headed northwest from Quang Tri toward the border area north of the DMZ and east of Laos. While we climbed out for the thirty-minute flight to the pickup zone, we checked in with Covey to brief us on his last contact with the team. The Air Force OV-10 Bronco would monitor our progress and call air strikes for us if necessary. We were to look for purple smoke on our short final.
Captain David Nelson was my aircraft commander. We were “Chalk One”, the lead aircraft. I was Nelson's co-pilot on my first CCN mission. I'd flown only six days with the Phoenix prior to this mission. Three months of flying a little Jet Ranger in the Central Highlands around An Khe was no preparation for what I was about to do.
Nelson did all the flying, continually updating the others en route regarding the plan of action and the type of extraction. Near the border area we assumed radio silence except for our classified “digital scrambled” FM radio. Without the same type of radio and our secret code, the enemy could not listen to us on this band.
Behind us, in the cargo bay of our Huey, rode a Special Forces NCO flying “belly man” along with our door gunner and crew chief. We were going to make a “string” extraction. This meant coming to a hover a few feet above the trees and then dropping 120-foot long ropes to the team on the ground. We were able to handle four passengers in this manner. They would clip on to the ropes by means of special metal rings sewn into their LBE (Load Bearing Equipment) harness, then we'd lift them out of the jungle and fly them to safety, dangling below us as we climbed vertically to 5,000 feet.
From that moment onward, we were a small assault helicopter team of four lift aircraft and four gunships, literally riding to the rescue, like the cavalry of old. There was an unspoken commitment we were all aware of. There were Americans in trouble on the ground. We were their only way out. It was time to get them and hope we didn't die trying. In the game of war, the lives of those on the ground were the “bet”. Our lives were committed to “up the ante” in quest of a win.
A vicious skirmish was underway between the “Studies and Observations Group” hopelessly outnumbered by North Vietnamese, who were equally willing to die in pursuit of “the Americans”. We were living an absolute dedication and commitment to duty, honour, and county. We weren't proclaiming these virtues, we were committing them. Deeds of action, not empty words. Life itself, we learned, was the most precious gamble.
We flew north from the Rockpile, a conical mountain below the DMZ. We proceeded north under a purple-grey cloud ceiling at 6,000 feet. The mountains to our west rose to over 5,500 feet elevation. Gusty winds buffeted us over unnamed mountains and ridges.
Several miles from our pickup zone the four slicks dispersed into one-minute intervals. The pilots behind us slowed to increase their distance between each Huey. We'd have one minute to find our passengers under attack, hover over them and kick out the strings. When they clipped on, we'd have to climb vertically to safety.
Minutes later we turned onto the final approach. Nelson called the team leader on the ground and told him we were two miles out. His only response was, “Hurry!” Nelson asked, “Is it hot?” The team leader's response was, “Yes.” We could hear the firefight raging in the second he took to say one word.
We began out descent, leaving behind the purplish grey glare of overcast clouds into the reddish brown haze of smoke and battle. The “Redskins” in their gunships were rolling in on a rotating cycle of fire support. When one finished firing and turned to climb out, another was coming in on his tail picking up the fire.
As we descended toward the smoking pickup zone, clearly in sight, an indescribable sinking feeling tore at my guts. Descending further, the Huey was shuddering as it decelerated. The loud “whopping” sound of our rotor blades heralded our approach to everyone with 25 klicks. With adrenaline pumping, we focused fully on the mission – locate the team, hover on them, drop the strings, get them out safely. The business at hand, training and respective duties took over. We had to set aside our fears during our approach. Time slowed as our minds raced, pumped with adrenaline
The Redskins were still shooting up the area as we neared the pickup zone. They were asked to bring their runs in closer. The SOG team was obviously close to being overrun. We were committed to the final approach. It was their only hope. Our hopes, prayers and reflections on the action would come later. Now was the time to act, no decisions, only trained reflexes taking over, monitoring the radios, engine instruments, weather conditions and enemy fire. Control movements, piloting decisions, were completed before we thought of them.
As we came in on short final, still a quarter mile from the pickup zone, Nelson said, “Get on the controls (with me)…very lightly.” Another chill shot down my spine. This was it! The real thing! Just in case he was hit, I was supposed to be ready to take over the controls. As we came to a hover, the crew chief shouted, “About ten yards forward, sir, about five yard to the right.” I felt the controls moving furiously, but Nelson had the bird at a perfect hover. Nelson was hovering the Huey just below a mountain ridgeline without much in the way of visual aids. His piloting was complicated by gusty mountain winds. I kept my fingertips just touching the controls. The SF sergeant back in the cargo bay looked over the side and said, “We're clear to drop, sir.” Reflexively, Nelson said, “drop 'em.”
The four 120-foot ropes uncoiled over the edge of the cabin floor. As I looked over the side of my armour plated, I could see we were taking fire. We'd hovered over the chaos of close combat, yellow tracers streaming by beneath us, wisps of white smoke from NVA rocket propelled grenades, and concussion of Redskin 2.75 inch rockets going off all around us. I stole a quick glance back inside the cockpit, watched Nelson performing, and never looked out again. Instead, I focused on the landmarks of the ridgeline in front of us, moving my eyes in the manner I had been trained, one second on the ridgeline, one second on engine instruments, one second on flight instruments, then repeating it all over again.
At the same time, I subconsciously made myself as small as I could behind my “chicken plate” chest amour and the armoured sliding door on my right. My entire simple existence totally depended on successful mission performance and my luck at not occupying the same space at the same time as a rapidly moving bullet.
I watched Nelson holding the Huey at a precise hover, totally ignoring the sounds of rockets and grenades exploding all around us. He was mentally and physically focused on maintaining that hover. He had shut down his mind to all outside distractions.
Suddenly, the crew chief called, “They're all hooked up, sir.” Then Nelson calmly announced, “Okay, coming up.”
“Clear up,” shouted the crew chief, followed by the same response from the gunner. Nelson then called over the radio, “Chalk One, coming out.”
Chalk Two, on short final called back, “Is it hot?” “Affirmative”, responded Nelson. With four passengers dangling from strings beneath our helicopter we went straight up 500 feet, moving forward slowly once the men on the ends of the ropes cleared the trees. We climbed steadily up to the bottom of the clouds near 4,500 feet and continued southeast away from the danger. Our time at a hover over the hole in the jungle had been less than thirty seconds. It had seemed like an hour.
The same action was repeated by the second Phoenix Huey. Our two ships completed the extraction in less than two minutes. The other two Phoenix birds, orbiting in the distance, were there as “back up” or recovery birds in case we went down during the extraction.
Clear of the area with the team safely out of danger, we turned southward towards South Vietnam, still unwilling to relax. We were still over North Vietnam.
A few minutes out from the PZ, Nelson said, “You got it, keep it steady, very steady.” As I took the controls, he shook his gloved hands, and began clenching and unclenching his fists, trying to relieve the tension and stress that were cramping his hands. He'd executed the extraction perfectly, but not with paying a price.
About fifteen klicks northwest of Quang Tri, just north of Camp Carrol, there was a large river valley. When we reached it we descended toward a large sand bar out in the current and hovered down with the men still on the ropes. They were too numb to move, the straps on the McGuire rigs had cut off the blood circulation to their legs. And there was the additional discomfort of having just been carried for thirty minutes at 4,500 feet, dangling at the bottom of 120-foot rope, in 40-degree temperatures at 70 miles per hour. None of them could move. Our crewmen had to physically carry them into our cargo bay.
Back in the air, we flew the rest of the way to FOB pad at Quang Tri. We dropped off our passengers, then headed south again to our base at Camp Evans.
When we were finally on the ground in the relative safety of our revetment area at Camp Evans, Nelson looked at me and said, “You shut it down, I've got paperwork to do.” He exited the helicopter and made his way to the TOC to write up his after action report. On instinct I began the procedure to initiate the engine cool down and shut down checklist. It was obvious that everyone had been under an incredible amount of tension. But this was I Corps, the end of the line. We had just completed an unbelievably risky mission in North-Damn Viet-Nam, and up here it was just routine!
I was quietly impressed with the performance of Captain Nelson. He'd served his first tour as a warrant officer, then had taken a direct commission and returned to Nam for a second tour. My first impression of him when I had arrived at the Phoenix a few days earlier didn't fit the impression I had now. He had worn spit-shined Corcoran boots, polished to a mirror finish. I'd seen him “hop scotching” from one dry rock to the next just to avoid getting his boots dirty in the monsoon mud. I remember thinking to myself. “This guy would be better suited for the Navy!” I'd seen a lot of them in my hometown of Pensacola, always immaculate, everything polished. We Army pilots, however, were a different breed.
Silently, I assimilated this experience. I was in awe of the performances of Nelson, the crew chief, the gunner and the Special Forces sergeant flying belly man. The second Phoenix crew had done the same thing. I felt inadequate to serve with these types of men.
During the extraction, waves of adrenaline had created in me an alertness, an aliveness, a high, so to speak, that transcended anything I had ever experienced in competitive sports. It had been interspersed with what I can only explain as “time expansion,” when a second seemed like a minute, and a minute seemed like an hour. The wonder exhilaration and the incredible sense of accomplishment that I felt after the mission was shared by everyone who was part of it. Yet it took a while to calm down, to get myself back under control. What an amazing experience!
We had been exceedingly lucky. Not one aircraft had taken hits. Every member of the SOG recon team had been safely extracted while under heavy enemy ground assault. For the Phoenix, this good luck would hold…for a while.
Captain David Nelson was lost over Laos four months after this action. I attended his memorial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, nineteen years later, when his remains were returned from Vietnam. Rest in peace, my friend.
This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.
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