Enroute back to base, we detoured along the river south of Hue and stumbled into one of the most marvelous places I had ever seen in Vietnam or anywhere. Broad marble stairs inclined to a shrine, with two gigantic monuments standing behind as sentinels. Between them, three parallel foot bridges crossed a moss covered moat, terminating in front of a large circular, stone-walled garden filled with a lush assortment of tropical trees and plants. After circling low to admire the magnificent grounds, we peeled off toward another of the white statues strewn randomly through the valley, discovering an opulent estate built on yet another moat, once again with a long row of stairs leading to a group of buildings at its center.
Exquisitely landscaped, the grand manor stood out from the rude hooches built by the farmers who tended nearby fields. I was amazed these places existed seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Scanning the AO map, I saw no less than four sites marked "Royal Tomb" stretching between us and Hue a few miles downriver: we had stumbled upon a Vietnamese Valley of Kings.
Over the next few days, we ranged farther west and north of Bastogne, occasionally sighting some of the old firebases and lesser outposts that had provided the overlapping framework of support for the 101st. Many were named for women: Anne, Kathryn, Kathy, Maureen, Merideth, Nancy, Sally and Stella. Only one, Miguel, bore a man's name. Complete with an airstrip, Birmingham was named for the city in Alabama. Others were derived from a more virile nature like Gladiator, Strike, Granite and Viper. Rakkasan was Japanese for "falling umbrella", named after the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Vegel had been a drop zone in Holland during WWII. Bastogne was borrowed from Battle of the Bulge fame. Then there was practical T-Bone, named only for the overhead appearance of the steep intersecting ridges it was built upon.
Today, most were simply that: names on the AO map. Only Anne, Bastogne and T-Bone were inhabited to any degree by the ARVN. The rest were reduced to desolate scars on the rugged terrain, destined to heal over time.
The initial AO recons were completed the next day without incident. Now the team prepared for our first joint operation with the 1st ARVN Division. As a sign of support, I supposed, we were issued laminated blue patches emblazoned with a large numeral "1" and a button holder attached to be worn under the shirt pocket. Based on our mission intelligence, a battalion on-line sweep was planned southwest of Bastogne, staying east and roughly following Route 547, while we would work just forward of them until they reached the objective. Once there, they would repeat the trek in reverse from a slightly different direction. I delighted in this type of mission much more than the mousing we had been doing these past few weeks. The likelihood of making contact was considerably greater when working in concert with a sizable ground force. At the same time, it was always more comforting to know friendlies were nearby in case one of us went down.
The weather had been holding nicely. With no rain to slow them, the ARVN were making good progress toward the mountain, hacking through jungle so thick in places that the scouts sometimes lost sight of them for hours at a time. But things remained quiet. After the third day of not firing a single rocket, I was growing almost listless in the cockpit, letting the frontseater, Chuck LeMay, fly most of the time while I stared blankly into the foliage and waited for something, anything, to happen. Actually, Chuck was probably more bored than me, since this had been part of his old AO when he was a Cobra AC with the Griffins of the 101st Airborne before transferring to F Troop. Now he was a copilot again until a slot opened up in the back seat, which should happen any day now that Lafayette had DEROS'd. As a former ARA (Aerial Rocket Artillery) pilot, he was frequently the target of our jokes about a mission we perceived as being flown at exorbitantly high altitudes.
"So what'd you guys do up there when you ran low on oxygen? Break your dives at ten-thousand feet instead of twenty?" I asked facetiously, since helicopters weren't supposed to fly high enough to require breathing assistance. Chuck groaned, but allowed a good natured laugh too. Kidding aside, I had a good deal of respect for the man and his combat experience. Based out of Camp Evans with the Screaming Eagles, most of his missions had been flown in the border regions with North Vietnam and Laos.
"Got called out one day when a lrrp team ran into what must've been a battalion of NVA over in the Ashau. They were barely staying ahead of the dinks when we showed up and started putting seventeen pounders down to break pursuit," Chuck began the new war story. Suddenly interested, I stretched in the seat and shook off a yawn. "This sergeant was on the radio calling my fire while running his ass off. I could barely understand him. The rockets were impacting about seventy meters behind him, but he told me to bring my fire closer. I shot a pair at about forty, and he said to bring 'em closer yet. The next ones hit within thirty meters and I 'bout shit. Then, I swear, he says to me, 'That's too close! But keep 'em comin'!"
"Geeawd, what happened to them?"
"Took heavy fire on the extraction, but we made it out okay."
Although most of my enemy contact had occurred with Viet Cong forces that infested the flatlands west and south of Da Nang, Chuck had never even seen a VC until he moved down to our unit. Most of his battles had been with hardened northern regulars. It was definitely a different war north of the Hai Van Pass, I realized. We turned back toward Eagle, thankfully ending the tedium of circling a quiet loach for six hours.
Red seemed unusually chipper as we filed into the briefing room at Camp Eagle early the next morning at his urging. "Gentlemen, we have finally located Mr. Charles," he announced, slapping the pointer hard against the map, causing the three-legged easel to rock on its spindly legs. "Right here on the side of this mountain, Dong Cu Mong, coordinates yankee-delta five-eight-three zero-one-one.
The pilots, normally half awake at this hour, were jolted by the uplifting news, snapping their maps open almost in unison to plot the area with grease-pencil. "The ARVN made contact with a sizable force a short time ago, and we've received orders to scramble. Be careful for Chrissakes!" His eyes were on the lead scout pilot, Captain Lodge, as the briefing abruptly dismissed. I was flush with excitement as I sprinted across the pad toward the aircraft. All the monotonous searching had finally paid off.
The steepening valley was congested with lingering scud left over from the previous night's fog, as we followed the river south from Bastogne. We began circling near the base of the mountain while the ARVN commander in Allison's back seat requested each unit to mark their positions with smoke grenades. Our initial optimism was dulled somewhat after it took half an hour to get all of the units to comply. Their apparent reluctance was understandable, however, since they were under sporadic mortar and small arms fire from the slopes above. As each smoke ascended through the canopy of trees, the color was confirmed and plotted.
"Got a tally on violet coming up on the western slope. Is that the last one?" an exasperated Lodge asked.
"Roger, violet's supposed to mark the people highest on the ridge," Allison confirmed. "Out your right door on the other ridgeline is a trail where they suspect the mortars might be coming from." Ten seconds passed after Lodge turned the loach. "It should be right below you now."
"If you've got a mark on the troops, you can put me down and vector me in," Lodge responded, eager to get to work.
As the loach descended, I reminded Hawkeye of the problems our ship had been having with the minigun firing exceptionally slow. Maintenance had replaced the electric motor drive, but it still hadn't delivered more than two or three thousand rounds per minute on the last test fire, laboring at that. Easley called on the gun freq to tell me to stay 180 degrees out from him, rankling me, since it was always standard procedure in hilly terrain to keep the loach in sight of one of the guns at all times. George was a good lead gunpilot, but his personality sometimes rubbed me the wrong way. I tried not to take it personally, since he was that way with everyone.
"One-One, the back seat says they're taking mortars right now. Do you see any flashes?" Allison queried the scout. Suddenly, things were heating up, and we were itching to pin-point the dinks. Hawkeye searched intently for signs of tube flashes or smoke trails to indicate the mortar positions, as I kept my eyes on the Little Bird traversing the ridge at high speed.
"Negative, but there's lots of trails. And I just went over a bunker."
"Any activity around the bunker?" Allison inquired.
"How about the trails?"
"Last night," Lodge replied. "And there's a half dozen fighting positions, one and two-man, under me now. They don't look like they've been occupied in the last seventy-two hours, but there's a lot of fresh foot work up on the hill."
"Roger. We just got coordinates where that last mortar was sighted. As soon as we get it deciphered, we'll vector you in," Allison said.
"I see some craters down here that could've been used to set up a mortar."
"Rog, but the friendlies reported taking eighty-two millimeter, and that's too heavy to be moved around in a hurry like that," Allison reasoned.
"I got a mark out on a bunker complex," Lodge called, as Kribbs tossed a smoke grenade on the position. The aggressive search continued while we waited for the mortar's coordinates to be deciphered. Hawkeye wrote the position of the red smoke in grease pencil on the canopy as Lodge continued down the slope.
"How many and how recent?" Allison queried.
"About ten bunkers, used in the last twelve hours."
I was astounded at the concentration of sightings Lodge was finding along the ridgeline.
"And One-One, uh, they've got some enemy contact up there near the top of the hill. He's gonna' pop a smoke, and we'll pick up a vector from that, and, uh, at a distance of a hundred and fifty meters past the smoke, we should have 'em."
"Alright, I'll be coming up heading three-four-zero." Smoke bubbled up through the tree tops ahead of the loach. "Tally on green."
"Okay, from the green, turn to one-two-zero degrees, about a hundred fifty meters. Looks like it's directly on top of the hill."
"Well, you know, when the ARVN are sittin' half way down the side of a hill, that's what's gonna' happen to 'em," Lodge responded sarcastically. "I'm headed west for a minute to get some airspeed up before I make the pass." The Cayuse climbed slightly and made a wide turn around before nosing over to approach the ridge from the back side.
"One-One, keep coming south along the ridge... mark, mark, should be out your right door now."
At last, we were closing in on them, and my mouth went dry as I felt the adrenaline surging.
"Be advised, I have five minutes left on station," Lodge radioed, advising Allison of his fuel state. My spirits sagged. If we were going to find them, it had to be soon. Without the loach, the team was basically blind.
"And One-One, he says they're taking small arms fire right now from another position. Why don't you hold off to the south until we can get a Cobra to put some rockets down and see if we draw fire."
"Roger, I'm at minimum fuel. Got to go." Lodge was already heading back to base before receiving Allison's acknowledgment, since a low fuel state was as potentially deadly as being shot down. Either one would unexpectedly put you on the ground with the enemy, provided you were lucky enough to survive the forced landing.
"Okay, we'll follow you as soon as we get a Cobra on target. Two-Eight, why don't you make a quick run and fire a couple of pair southeast of the last mark to see if we can't shake 'em up a little bit and get somebody moving down there. Two-Three, hold for an adjustment from Two-Eight's mark."
"Rog, I'll be inbound east to west," Easley said, as I picked up his wing position to cover him on the run. His rockets impacted long, disappearing altogether on the other side of the crest as he pulled out of the dive.
"Where the fuck is he shooting?" I asked Hawkeye.
"Wrong side! Wrong side!" Allison admonished the gun lead, causing me to laugh aloud over intercom.
"Two-Eight, break right," I called, as I rolled the ship on its side, letting the nose drop.
"Two-Three, put 'em on the south side of the ridge from those last marks," Allison instructed.
"Roger, I'm in hot." I fired one pair of high-explosive rockets about two-hundred meters south of Easley's and held the dive. "Gimme' an adjustment."
"Okay, just south of the smoke on top of the ridge."
I jerked the nose into position and released five more pair. Hawkeye fired madly with the chunker as we broke out of the dive.
"You guys need to make another run. This time, put 'em farther south. They've got them holed up in that little draw down there."
The area Allison pointed out wasn't even close to where he had directed our fire. "Damnit, why didn't he tell us that in the first place!" I complained to Hawkeye. Time was wasting, and they were only digging themselves in deeper now that they knew we were onto them. We had screwed around so long that everybody would have to break soon for fuel. I was down to 550 pounds.
Easley made another run, putting the fire just above the draw. "That's close. Now, Two-Three, put your fire just a little bit farther down," Allison said.
"Give me a minute to get set up," I said irritably, red-lining the torque to gain altitude as fast as possible.
"Also, they don't want any minigun or chunker. Use the big stuff only. They say they got 'em running around in the open right now."
Running around in the open? Those were the sweetest words any gunpilot could hear. In a stroke of unexpected luck, my delay in setting up must have given them the false notion we had finished attacking, as they left their temporary cover to di-di out of the area. Seizing the opportunity, I dropped power to the dive setting and initiated the roll-in a few hundred feet lower than normal, but still high enough for a decent run. Quickly fixing the position in the reticule, I punched off four pairs of HE that sailed dead-nuts into the cross-hairs, sending convulsive clouds of smoke and debris up the ravine. I quickly switched to the outboard pods and spread flechette rockets up the draw at even intervals until a click in the headset told me the pods were empty, and it was time to pull out.
"They say that was directly on top of 'em, Two-Three! Nice work. Hold off, Two-Eight, the ARVN are charging up the hill to attack."
I was elated by Allison's quick assessment as I banked sharply to match the angle of the ridge, zooming below the crest on the ARVN-held side of the hill, while the Cobra strained to break the dive. Once back at altitude, I circled opposite Easley and waited for the next report from the ground troops.
"Okay, they've found eight KIA so far on the way to the top," Allison reported.
"It's a turkey shoot out here, Hawk," I gloated over intercom.
"Fucking beautiful is more like it," I crowed. Damn it felt good, finally unloading on the pugnacious little bastards who had mocked us with their conspicuous presence for days, culminating with this asinine attack on the ARVN in broad daylight right under our very noses. All I cared about right now was getting rearmed and refueled as soon as possible, and returning to Dong Cu Mong before they broke contact and slipped away into the jungle again.
As it turned out, I needlessly worried about the NVA escaping our clutch. Over the next several days, the North Vietnamese persisted in trying to hold the mountain, even as more ARVN were air-lifted to its base to reinforce the battalion. Estimates now ran as high as 2,000 NVA, the largest single battle anywhere in Vietnam in well over a year. Soon, everybody was trying to get a piece of the action, as swarms of tactical fighter-bombers competed with artillery and B-52 raids for airspace. The loaches were receiving a lot of fire as well. When One-Five got his aircraft shot up while trying to verify another new enemy position, we dispensed with the traditional recon team approach and started functioning as an ARA unit, delivering load after thunderous load of munitions on targets called out by the ground observers. For once, the pilots groaned when their names weren't on the scheduling board. Red summed it up well at one briefing when he declared, "I don't know about you guys, but I'm having a fucking ball!"
The forward rearm point at Bastogne was now a welcomed place, dust and all as the Cobras shuttled back and forth from Dong Cu Mong. Each time we landed, two or three ARVN would start shoving rockets into the tubes even before the pilots could get out to supervise and help. The first time, I was taken aback at the sight of a Vietnamese woman loading rockets with the rest of the men. But any doubts I might have had in her ability were quickly allayed when I saw her grab onto the fuses and give each rocket a sharp tug to ensure it was held securely by the detent. She had obviously done this before. After double-checking her work once, I left the task up to her from then on.
Despite heavy retaliation by U.S. air and South Vietnamese ground forces, the battle intensified. During a last-light mission one evening, the NVA overran an ARVN company, using a classic human-wave attack to drive them from the summit. As rotten luck would have it, I was pulling standby that day, and so Captain Rose was the one who would be credited with 55 kills. Rose had to place his fire dangerously close to the South Vietnamese in order to break the attack. Napalm strikes by Air Force Phantoms out of Da Nang drove them back as well. When Ben Larson dropped in to help medevac the wounded, an RPG was fired at his ship, or, as he described later, "Something big flew past the windshield, and it wasn't a bird." The tall, lanky Dane, now a naturalized American citizen, had been in my flight school class, later flying scouts with the 101st in OH-58 Kiowas. After his division stood down, he was reassigned to us. He wasn't qualified in the OH-6 Cayuse that we used as a loach, so found himself assigned to the lift platoon. Back in his old AO once again, Ben was now flying slicks for F Troop.
March 30, 1972 dawned like any other day, as the crews prepared to join in the action we had come to regard as routine by now. Pulling standby, I paced around the barracks drinking coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes. Allison came in to refill his cup and relayed an interesting report he'd overheard in the commo room. The South Vietnamese Marines were engaged with a company-sized enemy force up north on Firebase Holcomb. I fumed at the lousy luck of the draw on the scheduling board that was denying me the opportunity to engage the NVA, now openly fighting in two locations.
The teams returned to eat chow just after noon. At the same time, a massive artillery barrage exploded along the entire northern defense-line of firebases. As word was received, the missions were canceled and the room became crowded with pilots, eating C-rations and following the events on the radios. The relentless cannonade continued throughout the afternoon and on into evening.
By nightfall, the heat was turned up another notch as the Vietnamese Marines on Nui Ba Ho were repulsing repeated ground attacks. Closer to home, 1st ARVN Division headquarters had lost contact with the battalion on Dong Cu Mong after another human wave attack had sent them scurrying. Bastogne couldn't be far behind. Reeling from the events of the day, I went to bed with the nagging suspicion that Dong Cu Mong was merely a small cog in a very big wheel that was threatening to roll over us. The North Vietnamese were engaged in such a large, coordinated attack that it could only mean one thing: The proverbial shit had finally hit the fan.
We were being invaded.