I dont know exactly when we began to support the Special Forces at Khe Sanh but assume it was either in August or September of 1967. I made my first trip to Khe Sanh in October 1967 and the Scorpions had been operating out of there for some time. Roger Old was one of the first Scorpions to fly these missions. The Marines had previously supported the operation but their gunships had fixed guns, limited ammunition, and restrictive flying policies. After Roger flew the first escort missions, the roles were reversed and the Marine gunships were used only to back us up.
The Special Forces mission (classified at the time) was in support of the 5th Special Forces; Special Operations Group (SOG) headquartered in Da Nang. The Group operated at two Forward Operations Bases (FOB) located at Phu Bai and Khe Sanh. FOB 1 at Phu Bai was located near the MACV base at Phu Bai just north of a Vietnamese basic training camp. FOB 3 operated on the western perimeter of the marine base at Khe Sahn. SOG conducted clandestine operations into Laos and sometimes into North Vietnam. These were mostly reconnaissance missions to monitor traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and sometimes call in air strikes. The American portion of the recon team consisted of a team leader, an assistant team leader, and a radio operator. Nine mercenary soldiers supported them. FOB 1 utilized Cambodian mercenaries and FOB utilized Montengard tribesmen from the Bru tribe.
We supported operations from both locations although most of the operations were staged out of Khe Sanh. On a typical mission they would utilize two slicks to insert the recon team. The aircraft would be escorted by our gunships. A team of Marine Corps gunships would remain on standby. The entire operation would be controlled by an U.S. Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC) in an OV-2 Cessna aircraft. Normally there would be two A-1Es (propeller aircraft) orbiting over the area in case we encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire. Two F-4 Phantom jets would be on strip alert at Da Nang. After insertion we would remain on stand by until the team was extracted several days later. A backup force team known as the "Hatchet Force" consisted of approximately 40 soldiers remained on alert to reinforce the team on extraction if required.
Initially the situation at Khe Sanh was fairly safe, but by the middle of November onward the situation continually worsened as the main force North Vietnamese Army begin to close in around the base. The normal tour for Scorpions was two weeks then we would rotate back south. Due to weather and maintenance problems our tours would often be extended for several days. Due to the shortage of personnel the same crews seemed to rotate in and out of Khe Sanh over and over again. Before the siege of Khe Sanh we enjoyed the Special Forces mission and looked forward t a break from the constant stand by that we had to pull at Chu Lai. All of our missions were classified and we drove our command structure crazy because we would not reveal the nature of our mission. On the after action reports we would only record the hours flown and the ammunition expended. The mission would be summed up with the terse words, "Classified Mission RVN." Our commanders were determined to learn what we were up to and on one occasion the Battalion Commander and the Brigade Commander demanded a briefing. When they arrived the Special Forces Commander met them escorted them to the mess hall (not the command bunker) and fed the biggest line of bull s**t I ever heard. They both departed satisfied that they fully understood the mission.
Military discipline was very lax and as long as we supported the mission we were allowed to do pretty much as we pleased. We wore an odd assortment of uniforms with the favorite being "Tiger Fatigues." We would sometimes spend the entire period without shaving and bathing opportunities were scarce so we were always a scruffy looking bunch. The slick pilots on the other hand were a clean cut bunch of pilots with regulation uniforms and shined boots. When we returned to the "beach" at Chu Lai, we were always a sorry looking bunch and the slick pilots begin to refer to us as "animals." (Hmmm . The B/123rd AHB Recon Team would later be called the "Animals") We reveled in the attention and swaggered thorough the company area in our filthy rag tag costumes brandishing an odd assortment of exotic weapons. Some Captain would soon approach us and order us to clean up and get into proper uniforms. Maintenance personnel dreaded seeing our return because our aircraft were always in dire need of maintenance and usually full of bullet holes.
Before the tactical situation turned to the worse we would often entertain ourselves by going on hunting expedition between missions. The two gunships would kill deer and pigs that would be delivered to the montengards for consumption. Although the Special Forces Commander tacitly condoned these operations we soon carried them to an extreme.
On one occasion while chasing wild pigs were flying so low in Scorpion 045 that we were almost over flying the 40mm grenade rounds as they exploded. When one of the pigs suddenly turned and darted back towards the aircraft the pilot (Bobby someone) continued to fire and blew out his chin bubble. Thankfully he had his flak jacket lying on the bottom and he received no injuries. Not to be outdone Steve Lotspeich fire a low-level rocket at a deer running across a river then flew through his own blast. The aircraft disappeared under a geyser of water and mud. Fortunately no one was injured but the aircraft was completely covered with great globs of mud. Steve landed on a sand bar and I orbited overhead while they washed enough of the mud off so they could at least see through the windscreen.
On one occasion we spotted a male elephant with large tusks running through the tall elephant grass. We were under orders to kill the elephants to prevent them from being used for transportation by the enemy. Steve was determined to kill the elephant and almost shot me down in the process. The elephant was finally killed and the Special Forces dispatched a team in a Huey to recover the tusks. The elephant grass was so tall that the slick could not land so the pilot (Foots Baker, I believe) landed on the side of the elephant. He touched down and kept his skids light while the team jumped off. Later he returned and shot another approach to the elephant to retrieve them. To my knowledge this is the only time an elephant was used as a land zone. We cleaned the tusks and the Special Forces kept one and the Scorpions kept the other. We mounted it on the wall of the officer club at Chu Lai and all future Scorpions were forces to drink beer from it (2 ½ cans) and drain it in one gulp. I would deeply appreciate if anyone knows what happened to the tusk.
By the mid-December the situation around Khe Sanh had degenerated to the point where it was becoming increasing dangerous to fly. Our hunter expeditions were cancelled when a Special Forces Sergeant was shot in the head while attempting to retrieve a deer. The sergeant was not seriously wounded but the commander put a stop to all extra flights.
When we went "Up North" were like a group of free lance guns for hire. When we were not involved in Special Forces operations we would support anyone that requested our assistance. During one trip in the middle of the monsoon season we were attempting to fly from Phu Bai to Khe Sanh in terrible weather. We had low ceilings with patches of fog and heavy rains. Our normal inclement weather route was to proceed up Highway One past Hue to Dong Ha, cut across to the Marine Base at Camp Carroll on the DMS, drop down and follow the river up the valley to Khe Sanh. Khe Sanh sits on a plateau and was often socked in. The Scorpions had discovered that we could slowly fly up a steep gorge at the end of the valley and pop out on the southern approach end of the airstrip. The weather was often so bad that the Marines could not believe that any aircraft could actually land but we would sneak up on them through the gorge.
On this particular occasion the weather was exceptionally bad and we were forced to slowly fly along the highway at tree top level with the aircraft slight out of trim so we could look out the open window. When we spotted a Marine firebase we decided to land and wait until the weather improved. When we landed a jeep cam roaring up to us and stated that the Colonel wanted to see us ASAP. We assumed that we were going to get chewed out for flying in the adverse conditions and landing without permission (Marines have no sense of humor). The Marine Colonel offered us hot coffee and then wanted to know how we managed to fly through such bad weather. We explained that we did so because we were stupid. He then explained that all Marine aircraft had been grounded by the weather for the past three days and that he had a company out in the bush that was unable to move because they had a Maine with a broken back that they could not evacuate. He then asked us if we could recover the Marine. We were certainly reluctant to go back up in that weather but the thought of that young Marine lying out in the bush for three days with a broken back was more than we could bare.
We removed all the rockets and ammunition (except door guns) from my aircraft then practically hovered up the river until we located the Marine unit. When we returned with the wounded Marine we were greeted like heroes. The Marine Colonel was extremely grateful and promised to write us up for a medal (nothing resulted). After eating a hot meal with the Colonel and his staff we proceeded on to Khe Sanh.
On another occasion we were scrambled out of Phu Bai after several vehicles had been attacked on Highway One just north of Hue. By the time we arrived the Viet Cong had already departed and we begin searching for them across some recently harvested rice paddies. One of the door gunners noticed something odd about a haystack and fired into it. The haystack returned fire and we proceeded to blow up every haystack in the area, killing several Viet Cong.
One of our favorite activities while at Phu Bai was patrolling the Perfume River east of Hue at Night. After sundown the river was off limits to all traffic and any boats spotted at night were fair game. The Special Forces would launch a flare ship and we would fly underneath shooting up sampans. On a good night we would knock out three or four. We considered this to be great sport.
Initially the Special Forces utilized Vietnamese CH-34s from the Queen Bee Squadron at Da Nang to provide slick support. I have nothing but the greatest respect for the Vietnamese pilots that we worked with on these operations. Later, for some unknown reason, the Special Forces switched to Huey slicks from another unit (perhaps from our 14th Battalion). Then based upon our recommendation they began to utilize slicks from the 161st for support, which greatly improved our coordination when we begin escorting our own slicks. "Foots" Baker was the first slick leader that I recall on these missions.
Just across the river that separated South Vietnam and Laos was a huge escarpment known as Co Roc Mountain. Lang Vei Special Forces camp, which was about 5 miles west of Khe Sanh was situated on a knoll facing the mountain. The Special Forces frequently traded fire with a North Vietnamese Regiment known to be headquartered somewhere on the mountain. The eastern side of the mountain consisted of a huge overhanging cliff with dense jungle growth underneath it. The Special Forces had observed movement along the bottom of the cliff and requested that we fly along the base and recon the area. When we flew in extremely close to the base we could observe several long rectangular building that had been constructed underneath the overhang with tall trees shielding them from normal view. We obtained permission and attacked the structures. Later the Special Forces inserted a recon team to assess the damage and determined that the buildings had been a North Vietnamese field hospital that had been abandoned after our attack. We joked around about blowing them out of their beds but I had not regrets then and still dont.
On another mission a FAC spotted several North Vietnamese trucks parked in an area just west of Highway One. They had apparently pulled in there to wait for darkness before proceeding. The FAC had no A1-Es for F-4s on station and requested that we attack the truck part to prevent their dispersal before the F-4s could arrive. We knew that the trucks were normally heavily defended by 51 caliber machine guns but we agreed to attack them and attempted to disrupt their operations. We fired all our rockets into the area and were rewarded with several secondary explosions. The F-4s soon arrived and finished them off, but the FAC credited us with destroying several of them. We wanted to paint trucks on the side of our aircraft but decided it would compromise the classification of the mission. I dont believe we were the only Scorpions to destroy trucks. I believe Roger Old and some of the "older" Scorpions destroyed several trucks. I know that Roger Old was a legend among the Special Forces personnel for attacking and destroying a 37mm antiaircraft position with a hog.
On one operation out of Phu Bai we inserted a Special Forces team in Laos just west of the A Shau Valley. The mission was to monitor an intersection of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to determine how much traffic was moving into Vietnam Through the A Shau Valley. We inserted the team without incident and returned to Phu Bai and began our standby operation. Later that night we got a frantic call from the team that they were under heavy attack and requested extraction. When we flew in for the extraction we encountered heavy fire from small arms and 12.5 mm machine guns. The Vietnamese CH-34s were unable to extract the team and one of their aircraft was shot down. The Special Forces operations officer managed to obtain some support from some Hueys and we attempted to insert the Hatchet Team. On short final the slick suddenly exploded in mid-air and plunged into the mountain and the extraction attempt was called off. We believe that it received a direct hit from an RPG. The Special Forces next obtained the support from a CH-53 unit in Da Nang, which finally managed to extract a few survivors. One of the rescue CH-53s was shot up so badly that had to crash land at Khe Sanh. Sometime during the night the O-2 FAC was also shot down. All throughout the night and well into the next day we continued to fly sortie after sortie. We became so exhausted that we would take turns napping while enroute to and from refueling and rearming. The situation was further compounded by the fat that we had to fly over the A Shau Valley to and from refueling and often encountered 51 caliber fire. Both gunships took hits but we managed to keep them flying until the team was finally extracted. The Vietnamese CH-34 crew was recovered the next morning with no injuries. I dont have any idea how many lives were lost on that operation, but the recon team and a major portion of the first Hatchet Force were literally decimated.
On January 5, 1968, while attempting to insert a Special Forces team, one of the slicks received a direct hit from a 37mm antiaircraft gun while flying at 6,500 feet. The aircraft exploded then the various pieces tumbled to the ground, trailing black smoke as they fell. For some reason Steve Lotspeich and Jeff Peacook who normally flew wing position for me and Dan Millians decided he wanted to fly the lead position for a while. When Steve saw the slick explode he immediately turned and attempted to attack the position. To our horror he instantly began receiving 51 caliber fire from three separate position plus flak from at least one (maybe two) 37mm. He screamed that he was receiving fire and dove towards the ground. His aircraft appeared to be completely surrounded by 51 caliber tracer rounds plus black puffs of flak exploding all around him. I raised the nose of my aircraft to increase the range and ripped all fourteen of my rockets in the direction of the 37mm position. I dove for the deck with Steve and shouted frantic orders for all helicopters to return to base. Miraculously, I dont believe either of us took a hit.
The Special Forces were determined to recover their dead and after pounding the area with everything the Air Force had they decided to launch one slick with a crew of American volunteers and attempt to recover the bodies. Steve had all he wanted playing lead and was flying as my wing man again. We flew to the area as high as we could then dropped back down to the deck. The slick hung back until we could fly over the area and check it out for enemy fire. I made a high speed pass over the area and did not receive fire. As soon as the slick approached the area, all hell broke loose and we had to abort while the Air Force went back to work. There was a lot of discussion about making another recovery attempt but the slick pilots were not keen to risk their lives again to retrieve obviously dead bodies. The Special Forces made a commitment to their people to make every attempt to retrieve them even if they were dead. A compromise was reached and it was decide that the slick would remain well away from the area until Steve and I could fly in and check out the area again. None of us had any desire to fly back into another ambush, so I assembled the entire Scorpion crews, including enlisted crewmembers, and put it to a vote. I stated that I felt an obligation to support the Special Forces but would not fly back into the area if even one crewmember objected. We discussed it for a while and all agreed to make one more attempt. As we neared the area the door gunner suddenly shouted that we were taking fire and opened up. I banked around and we returned to Khe Sanh as fast as we could. We never discussed it, but I was never sure if we were under fire. I never questioned the door gunner and was as relieved as the rest that it was finally over.
I dont believe the bodies were ever recovered. There could not have been much left to recover under the circumstances. Im of the impression that the pilot flying the slick was a congressmans son. I know that after I returned to the states a congressman demanded an investigation be conducted into the circumstances of his death while flying a classified mission in Laos. The information I pieced together sounded like the same incident.
Chuck Carlock in his book "Firebirds" states that the slick was from out battalion but I have no recollection of the unit. He also states that another slick was shot down at 300 feet, but I believe he has the two described mission confused.
Per VHPA records of aircraft and crew losses: On January 5, 1968, an entire crew from the 176th AHC (also from the 14th Aviation Battalion) was shot down and lost.
By the first of January there were nine North Vietnamese Regiments surrounding Khe Sanh. I believe they were from the same division that had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. We were receiving incoming round on a daily basis. At first there was only a few mortar and rocket rounds but by mid-January the North Vietnams brought in their artillery and the siege of Khe Sanh begin in earnest. The main target was the airfield and since we were on the western perimeter only a few rounds fell in our compound. We lived in a huge reinforce concrete bunker that was buried under ground and designed to withstand a direct hit from 750 pound bombs. While we were safe in the bunker the mess hall, supply room, showers, and latrines were all exposed. I was sitting in the latrine when a round exploded behind me and shrapnel went through the roof. I believe I developed a severe case of constipation after that.
When the rounds would start coming in we would entertain ourselves by sitting on top of the bunker and watch the Marines catch hell only a few hundred meters away. Invariable a short round would end the show and we would all scramble for cover. The North Vietnamese was dug in on a ridgeline a few hundred meters west of the compound. Our biggest fear was a ground attack since we were the western most perimeter and only had a total of about 175 men. Five-ton trucks were filled with sandbags and driven around the compound to cave in any potential tunnels. The Special Forces also used special listening devices to detect digging. Our job in the event of a ground attack was to guard the entrance to the bunker. They eventually flew in a battalion of elite South Vietnamese Rangers from the Tiger Regiment to reinforce the compound. We were extremely proud to see these additional forces.
By mid-January all missions were cancelled and we were purely on the defensive. At first were scrambled our several times a day to attack trench lines just to the west of Khe Sanh when I scored a direct hit with a rocket on a NVA soldier in a foxhole. Ruined his whole day! On the same mission my crew chief (John Dailey) was hit in the head. There was an entry wound in the front of his helmet and blood was flowing down his face. We all thought he was dead. Since we were only a few hundred meters from the compound we rushed him back to the highly trained Special Forces medics (almost doctors). A Special Forces sergeant jumped on board and we flew back to the fight. When we came back to refuel and rearm the crew chief came running back to the aircraft with his head all bandaged up. The round had penetrated his helmet at an angle, lacerated the side of his skull and exited to the rear. No amount of coaxing could convince him to remain behind and he completed his mission. Other than a few stitches a severe headache, I believe he fully recovered.
The fighting became so intense that we had to cancel all flights. It was sure death to venture past the perimeter fence. The jets and B-52s were pounding the area constantly and the incoming artillery and outgoing rounds were so intense that it was impossible to fly. We fought the war sitting on top of the bunker watching air strikes and the artillery bombardment. Since we had no bunkers we moved our helicopters around several times a day and kept them widely dispersed to prevent them from being targeted. Almost all of the Marine Corps helicopters were destroyed in their bunkers. Eventually the Marine Corps decided to evacuate their remaining helicopters. On January 30, 1968 we were ordered to evacuate our aircraft to Phu Bai to prevent destruction. By this time Khe Sanh was almost completely surrounded by .51 caliber machine guns and the only way out was to take off on the south end of the runway and dive down through a steep gorge which provided some protection from the 51 cals and break out in the valley below. We followed this route out and made it safely to Phu Bai. As I departed I remember thinking, "I hope I never see that damned place again."
When we arrived at Phu Bai we were proud to be alive and grateful to be back in a more peaceful area. We all loaded onto a slick and flew to Da Nang where we spent the night downtown in a Special Forces "Safe House" for some much needed R & R. Dan Millians, Steve Lotspeich, and Jeff Peecook were the other pilots with me. During the night all hell broke loose and the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive. When we heard the rockets and mortars we requested that the Special Forces send a truck to rescue us but hey refused and informed us that the entire area was under heavy attack and that we would have to hold out until morning when they would launch a rescue attempt. We were in an old three story French villa with a stone wall around it. The only security we had was two Nung guards on the gate and we were not sure how dependable they were. All we had were our .38 pistols so we barricaded ourselves on the third floor and spent an anxious night waiting to be rescued. The next morning when the rescue force arrived they informed us that we were needed ASAP at Phu Bai but failed to brief us on the situation. When the slick arrived at Phu Bai we were met by a jeep and rushed into the briefing room. The operations officer informed us that the MACV compound in Hue was under heavy attack and requested that we proceed there immediately and assist. We still had no idea of the extent of hostilities that had erupted.
We were faced with low ceilings and could not obtain more than 200 feet altitude as we flew towards Hue. The visibility was so bad that we almost flew into a radio tower between Phu Bai and Hue. As we approached the MACV compound all hell broke loose. We began receiving heavy fire from all directions. The 40mm jammed after a few rounds and I only managed to fire two rockets before they were disabled by ground fire. One of the rockets in the right hand pod began to burn and I attempted to jettison the rocket pods with the electrical release but the mechanism jammed. The right door gunner, John Hammontree managed to kick the burning pod loose from the aircraft. At about the same time Steve Lotspeich shouted that he had taking fire, lost all hydraulics and was returning to Phu Bai. I attempted to turn around and escort him back but under the intense ground fire and low visibility I could not spot him and assumed he had been shot down. By now we had lost all radio contact and began a desperate attempt to shoot our way out with only our door guns functioning.
While looking for our wing man we flew over Highway One and were amazed to see what appeared to be thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers moving down the highway waving large banners. The crew chief (John Terry was flying in place of John Daley) shouted that we were loosing fuel and I noticed that you could actually see the fuel gauge moving (a round had severed the crossover fuel line). I nosed the aircraft over to full speed in an attempt to make Phu Bai before I lost all my fuel. We had taken some hits in the engine and it was beginning to get dangerously hot. There was absolutely no place to land without being instantly killed so I made the decision to proceed and attempt to get as close to Phu Bai as possible. At one point I bent over to glance back out of my window just as a round went through the windshield in front of me. Several other rounds penetrated the cockpit. I had been injured from flying shrapnel and could feel the blood oozing down my neck. I thought I was going to bleed to death. Finally I spotted Phu Bai airfield ahead of me but had no radio contact. I knew we didnt have enough power left to hover so I executed a running landing and came to a screeching halt. The entire cockpit was filled with electrical smoke from the numerous severed wires. We all scrambled from the aircraft, still fearful that it might explode. Just as we exited the aircraft our wing ship appeared and executed a running landing just behind me. We all had a joyful reunion as people from all over the airfield gathered around. We had both assumed that the other had been shot down.
A later examination of the aircraft indicated that we had taken 27 hits. Taking 27 hits is not that amazing in itself but the fact that we managed to make it back to the airfield was truly amazing. When asked later how I managed to make it back I responded that I was too damned scarred to put it down. The airfield operations officer demanded that we move the aircraft off his runway but neither ship was flyable. He finally managed to drag them off with a truck and clear the runway. I believe that 045 was declared a total loss and never repaired.
Several of us were slightly injured by all the fling shrapnel. My neck had been lacerated in several places by Plexiglas shreds. If I had not had my visor down I probably would have been blinded in the left eye. If I had not been looking out the window, I probably would have been hit in the head. Some of went to the local hospital but when we saw the confusion and extent of the casualties we left and were later treated for our minor cuts and scratches by a Special Forces medic.
When we arrived at the Special Forces compound everything was in mass confusion. They had reports that the North Vietnamese were proceeding towards Phu Bai with the intention of attacking the compound. When we notified the company operations officer of our situation he ordered us to return to Chu Lai at once on the slick. The Special Forces commander pleaded with us to remain and help him defend the perimeter. We put it to a vote and all of the Scorpions elected to remain. The slicks did not have the same close working relationship and decided to return. Our crewmembers stripped the M-60s and functioning rocket pods from our aircraft. The Special Forces were grateful for the additional firepower and assigned us to the eastern perimeter, the most likely avenue of attack. The door gunners mounted one of the rocket pods on top of a concrete bunker and secured it with sandbags. They obtained a jeep battery and sighted the rockets on a tree line about 100 meters across open rice paddies. When they fired this makeshift weapon, the rockets would scream across the paddies at about waist level and slam into the trees with awesome results. The Special Forces appreciated our additional M-60s but were not impressed with our sold tracer ammo, our crew members insisted on using their own ammunition. The Special Forces positioned themselves well away from us.
We remained in the trenches all night, expecting to be charged by screaming hordes of North Vietnamese at any minute. At the slightest provocation the entire perimeter would open fire in an awesome display of firepower (rockets and solid tracer). Later that night the Special Forces received information that a North Vietnamese Regiment had assembled in a tree line several hundred meters east of the compound and were preparing for an attack. Artillery was called in on the position and broke up the enemy forces.
The following morning a slick arrived with one of our platoon leaders who demanded that we return to Chu Lai. We packed up our equipment and flew back with him. We left our rocket pods and at least two of the M-60s with the Special Forces.