Monday, February 17, 2014

The Great Grenade Bombing Run

This is more a funny story that a serious one, but it was serious at the time.  In March of 1963 General Vang Pao's troops were under attack on the western edge of the PDJ....or maybe they were on the attack, but in any case his troops were in need of some air support.  It happened to be raining that day and fixed wing aircraft were not flying at all.  However, some of the helicopters were flying in and out and moving supplies to various Hmong troops around the PDJ.  I was hanging around the Air America building when one of the helicopter crews came around and asked if anyone wanted to go up to Ban Na and see what we could do to help the Hmongs there.  I thought it might be interesting so I volunteered to go along with a couple of Air America guys.  I told Akkrat to find some cases of grenades or mortar rounds and we might be able to distract the enemy troops for awhile.

As we got on the helicopter for the trip north I noticed that Akkrat had found several crates of hand grenades plus my FN-FAL with maybe thirty or forty 20 round clips of ammunition for it.  Well, this was going to be interesting for sure.  We took off and headed north.  After about an hour flight time, we arrived over Ba Na and could see smoke coming up from the side of a mountain overlooking the edge of the PDJ.  Once the pilot made contact with the troops on the ground, he determined that there was no landing site close enough to the fighting to get the materials down to them.  That is when he came up with bright idea which follows.

Akkrat said, "We throw grenade at PL.  Tell pilot to fly low but fast."  I passed the information to the pilot  He yelled back at us and said to remove the lids on the grenades and that he would fly very fast over the edge of the enemy positions and that we could throw grenades down at the enemy as we flew over them.  The crew chief opened up the crates of grenades and we all got ten or twelve each.  
The pilot banked the helicopter and lined up on the enemy positions.  The he yelled for us to throw the grenades.  We pulled the pins and threw them out both side doors as fast as we could.   The Pathet Lao never saw this coming.  About thirty or more grenades were thrown down at the enemy on the first pass.  The pilot did a u-turn and back we went in the opposite direction.  He yelled to throw some more grenades and we did.  We made three passes this way and by the time the last pass was made, we were out of grenades.  The enemy started finding the range with small arms fire so as we made another pass, Akkrat took my FAL and put it on automatic fire and poured lead into the general area of the PL troops.  He used up all the ammo and then we headed back to Long Tieng.

The enemy broke off their attack and retreated back into the across PDJ.  Later, it was said that the radio traffic from the Pathet Lao radio operators indicated that they thought they were being bombed by fixed wing aircraft.  We all got a good laugh out of that.  Our great bombing run was the talk of Long Trieng for several days.  I might mention here that there were over a dozen bullet holes in the helicopter but no one got hit.  So that was the "Great Grenade Bombing Run."

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Snatch! (Part two)

It was just about 0100 hours as we sat down and was watching the valley below, one of the PARU came over to me and pointed towards the north end of the valley.  There were lights coming down the valley floor.  Lots of lights...moving north to south.  Once they got about ninety degrees to our position I could hear truck engines.  This was a large group of enemy personnel moving south towards South Vietnam.  This caravan went on for the rest of the night and into the early morning.  We were just coming out of the rainy season and usually the NVA and PL did not move much at night during it.  I had one of the PARU count the trucks and another one count individual lights that appeared to be in the hands of individual soldiers.  Just about daylight, the last of the lights passed our position and disappeared to the south.  I then sent a coded message to Vientiane with the numbers we had collected.  

I had made a radio check with Akkrat about 0300 hours and then right after I sent the message to Vientiane, I contacted Akkrat again to make sure he was okay.  He said he had started the clearing operation and hoped to have it done by noon the next day.  He had put out scouts and they had seen no enemy movement on their side of the mountain or in the valley below them.  That was a good sign as far as I was concerned.
Most of the day was spent in our "hide", but one of the PARU went on on scouting missions about every two hours or so to make sure no one was trying to sneak up on us.  All-in-all, it was a pretty quiet day.  The only thing that I had  heard from team Falcon was the double squelch break that let us know they were okay.  Breaking squelch means that they keyed up the mike for one second, unkeyed it for two seconds, and then rekeyed it a second time.  I would, in turn, acknowledge them with a double squelch break letting them know I got the status check.  The SF guys only used voice communications via radio when they were in trouble and needed assistance.  I am sure they were in contact with Vientiane with voice communications even if they didn't contact me.

There was some movement on the trail during the day, but nothing like we witnessed the previous night.  We seemed to have a good vantage point and a good hide so we stayed put for the next night.  Again, as on the previous night a lot of movement in the valley below.  We again witnessed a lot of trucks and personnel moving down the trail.  Again I passed on this information to Vientiane.

On the third day, we heard from Falcon who made a voice transmission.  This was sort of unusual as they normally didn't make contact with us until they were on their way to us.  They stated that they were "on target" meaning that they had their person in sight and were ready to make the snatch.  Not much happened again that day and we were relaxed about the situation, but still very alert to what might be coming our way unannounced. But it still bothered me to some extent that Falcon effectively broke protocol and made a voice transmission.

Late that third night all hell broke lose in the valley below.  There were several big explosions and we could see that something big had blown up.  The place where all this was taking place was really on fire.....a really big fire.  Although it was distant, we could hear small arms fire and secondary small explosions.  The valley and surrounding mountains carried the sound up to us.   The radio came to life and Falcon told me they were on their way to us.  Falcon said they were about 12 to 18 hours from our position....if we were where we were supposed to be. It was a little after 0300 hours.  I rogered the transmission and now it was just a waiting game.  I notified Vientiane of the situation and they replied to keep them advised as to the progress of Falcon.  With all the road traffic in the valley below, I wondered how Falcon was going to get to us, but I was sure Peterson had a plan.  And I am sure he had a backup plan and backup plan to the backup plan.  Peterson didn't leave much to chance. He often quoted Gen. George Patton when Patton said something to the effect that you " always need a backup plan because the first plan never works anyway."

Just as it got light enough to see, what I saw caused a real pucker factor to take place.  There were all kinds of NVA troops below us in the valley, maybe a battalion.  They were moving in daylight and moving north to south down the valley and they were in a hurry.  Normally, I would have called in an airstrike of T-28's, but I wasn't able to do that because Falcon was operating somewhere close by.  I could only surmise that this had something to do with Falcon.  By about noon, the traffic had subsided substantially, but there were still groups of enemy troops moving down the valley.  I was watching one group which stopped and then broke off from those moving south.  This group of twenty or so broke off from the main body and turned toward the west up towards a draw just to our south.  I knew I had to contact Falcon.  This group meant to cut them off.  I don't think they knew we were on the mountain, but I think they thought Falcon would come that way.    I called Falcon and just made a simple statement.  "Enemy in small valley between you and us.  Maybe twenty or thirty troops."   I got his "double squelch break" and knew he had heard me.  A little more than a hour later a firefight broke out in the ravine to our south.   I heard small arms fire and some grenades go off, and probably a couple of claymore mines.  Finally, Falcon called us and said they were on the slope with the enemy in close pursuit.  The radio operator said that we would need to provide covering fire once they got over the first ridge.  I told my three indigs they needed to set up to provide covering fire after Falcon crossed the ridge.  They would be under us but the NVA soldiers would be exposed as they came over the ridge.  The range was about 400 yards.  The AK's would be of little help at that range and hitting something was problematical.  However, I had brought my FLN and it was effective out to 600 yards, maybe more under ideal conditions. A short while later I watched through the binoculars as Falcon crossed the ridge.  I put the barrel of my FLN on a rock and tried to remain as steady as I could.  It took about 15 minutes for the NVA to reach the ridge.  As the first one reached to top of the ridge, I fired one round.  From experience, I knew that I would have to aim about 15" above the target to hit it. At 600 yards I would have had to aim 72 inches above the target to hit  it. Good thing the range was about 400 yards.   It was like slow motion.  It seemed forever but I know it wasn't a second and the bullet hit it's target.  The NVA soldier toppled over.  A second came over the ridge and he met the same fate.  It  would have been nice to have had a telescopic sight, but my FLN didn't come with one.  To this day I don't think they knew another team was on the mountain.  When several others crossed the ridge I was able to knock down two more but seven or eight passed quickly beyond my view.  I now think the enemy troops thought it was Falcon doing the shooting because they never once looked our way.

I contacted Vientieane and told them of the situation.  They asked for my ETA at the LS.  I figured it would be at least another hour before Falcon got to us.  Then it was a hard eight to twelve hours to the LS.  And, I didn't know what kind of shape Falcon was going to be in when they got to us.  I informed Vietieane that 0400 the next day would be my guess.  They told me they would schedule extraction for 0700 hours.  I contacted Akkrat and told him of the situation on our side of the mountain and when I expected to arrive at his location.  The firefight below us had subsided some with only intermittent firing going on. Akkrat told me that the clearing operation was complete, but one of his scouts had sighted enemy troops on the south side of their location.   He did not know if they knew he was there or not, but he was planning as if they did.  I had not heard any additonal weapons being fired for some minutes and I wondered what Falcon was doing.  I didn't have long to wait.  I heard two claymores go off and then a grenade and some small arms fire just below us. Over the radio I heard Falcon say that they would be in view in five minutes and not to shoot in their direction until they got to us.

As Falcon came into view I counted eleven persons.  There was Peterson and the two SF guys, seven Indigs, and one Caucasian with about ten days growth of beard.  Two Indig SF guys were missing.  Two of the Indigs that made it to us were wounded.  One of the SF guys was also bleeding from two wounds.  But before I had time to ask any questions all hell broke loose.  Bullets started flying around like bees from a disturbed hive. One of my Thais took a round in the leg.  I told Peterson to get his team moving up the trail and I would follow behind.  He had his Indigs set some claymore mines around where we were as he pulled out.  They set the fuses for two minutes.  Fortunately we were on high ground with some rocks providing cover.  It was easier for us to fire down on the enemy soldiers than it was for them to fire up at us without them breaking cover.  We threw a couple of grenades down on the guys firing at us, and then followed Team Falcon up the trail.  A minute or so after we cleared the area we heard the claymores go off.  I could only hope it took out some of the enemy in pursuit of us.  I told my team to stop and let me make contact with Akkrat.  I was able to do so and told him that Falcon was on their way to him and that he might need to lend them some assistance.  I listened to see if I could hear the enemy behind us but I didn't hear any movement.  It could be that the claymores killed some of them or  that it scared them enough to slow them down.  We moved as quickly as we could so that we could catch up to the SF team in front of us.  We were making our way around the south side of the mountain when I heard gunfire in front of us.  It now appeared that the enemy troops I saw go up the draw earlier had made it up the mountain and had run into Peterson's team.

We made our way towards the gunfire but it took about five minutes to get to where the action was taking place.  We saw the enemy soldiers before they saw us and and being that we were above them, we had an advantage.  We unloaded on them from about 50 to 100 yards from them. Between the four of us some 100 rounds went down on them and all but one was killed or wounded and that one made a fast retreat from us.  We caught up to Peterson and in the ambush he had been wounded although at the time, I didn't think it was serious.  One more of his Indigs had gone down with a round to the head.  He was obviously deceased.  We all once again got moving toward the LS.  It took us six hours to move to the LS and we didn't encounter any more enemy troops in our trek.  By now it was about 0430 in the morning.  Boy was I glad to see Akkrat.  It was dark and hard to see, but the LS looked pretty good to me.  Peterson called everyone together and told them we needed to set up a defensive perimeter for he was sure we were soon to have some more company.  He laid out his plan and then sent two of his Indigs back down the trail to set some claymores.  He determined that we would have a hard time defending the ground to the north, so he sent another couple of his people and they set claymores  along that perimeter as well.  He scattered his men around the LS and Akkrat put his men to the south end of the LS.  I was to stay with Peterson so he had immediate radio contact with Vientiane. Everything was very quiet.  That was never a good sign.  Not a bird or animal was making any kind of sound. And so the wait for extraction began.  Peterson sat down next to me but said nothing.  If things were bad previously, it was about to get a whole lot worse.

(To Be Continued)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Snatch! (Part 1)

As we were landing in the Porter, I looked down the runway and knew something big was up.  As we came to a stop on the tarmac, I looked over at the helicopter pad and saw eight H-34 helicopters.  Having extra H-34's usually meant that the mission was going to be at the limits of the H-34's range which was about 180 miles. The number of helicopters was unusual as we normally had no more than four at any one time at Long Trieng.   From past experience I knew that the extra choppers would carry fuel so that we could refuel at some place along the way.   Something else was different as well.  Akkrat had twelve PARU  with him and the SF guys milling around the heli-pad was equal to that number.  There was a total of  twenty-six SOG and Paru on site.  Add me and that made a nice round twenty-seven.  As I was exiting the Porter, I saw Col. Bradley walking my way with Lt. Peterson of team Falcon and Akkrat, my PARU sergeant.  He grabbed me by the arm and literally led me to a vehicle where he, myself, Akkrat and Peterson got in and he drove us to a secluded spot away from the runway.   Bradley handed all three of us maps of an area really close to the DMZ in Vietnam.   He looked at Peterson and said, "This is a 'snatch" mission.  Falcon, you will be in charge of the the "snatch"part of the mission.  Navigator, you will be handling the air assets as usual.   Akkrat, you will cut a new LS into this mountain's west side (he pointed at a place on Akkrat's map). This is either a three day, five day, or forever mission.  The forever part is if you get killed while you are on it."  "Navigator, you and Akkrat's team will be inserted some distance from Falcon's insertion site.  Akkrat's men will clear a new LS.  We will try to provide some noise not too distant with some strafing and bombing runs to cover your noise in clearing the site.  The site will need to be big enough to land two H-34's at the same time.  If you are discovered before the site is complete, you will be evacuated as soon as we can arrange it.  If the site has been cleared and you are discovered, you will fight and hold it as long as possible.  Understood?"

File:Sikorsky H-34s VNAF at Tan Son Nhut AB.jpg

H-34's, range 182 miles, load 16 troops with gear.  Armament, none.

We all acknowledged that we understood.  He went on, "This is a mission with a 'need to know' informational plan.  Falcon knows his mission parameters.   He knows his objective.  Navigator, you only need to know what is available in the way of air assets and operating frequencies.  Akkrat, all you need to know is that clearing the LS is very important for the success of this mission. This will be a hairy mission because of where you will be operating and the number of enemy soldiers in the area.  Navigator, your job is to provide everyone a safe exit from the LS at the end of the mission.  I have no doubt this will be a "hot" mission.  Carry extra ammunition, water and food."  "Navigator," he continued, "While Akkrat is clearing the LS on the west side of this mountain (he pointed to a spot on the map), you will take three of the PARU that Akkrat will select, and go to the east side of the mountain and find a place to watch the valley below.  You will watch and keep us posted on what you see via our HF radio frequencies.  Move only at night, get cover before daylight and keep your eyes open all night.  Got that?'  I said, "Yes, sir, I've got it."  ." 

"Falcon," said Bradley, "Try to not get into a shooting war over there.  Be as discrete as you can and try not to be seen and just do the job you have been sent over there to do.  Don't try and be a hero.  If the missions goes bad, get the hell out of there.  Akkrat and Navigator will have your back."  "I want you to know," Bradley added, "that this is a very dangerous mission for all of you.  You are close to the Vietnamese DMZ and on the "trail."  There are literally hundreds of NVA plus a thousand or so Pathet Lao in that area.  Don't take unnecessary risks."  Bradley then handed Peterson and me a sheet with the operating frequencies that we would use on this mission.  Each frequency has a corresponding number, like 5.530 MHZ would be frequency number 24, 5.450 would be number 18 and so on.  That way, if we needed to change frequencies, we didn't have to give away the frequencies we were going to change to.  (Heck, I know ending with a preposition is not good literary form, but I am not a writer and I am going to take some poetic license here.)  I had in my hand a list of ten HF frequencies to be used based on time of day and atmospheric conditions.  I also had the TAC AIR frequencies which would be my links to the aircraft and helicopters who would be supporting this.  I had to memorize these on the way to the LS and then destroy the paper they were written on.  Then Bradley gave us his final words before he took us back to the helicopter pad.  "This is a very classified mission. Regardless of the outcome, this mission never happened.  Nothing is to be talked about now or after it is over except to brief me.  Is that understood?"  We all affirmed that we understood.  "One more thing Navigator, I have it on good authority that there might be fast flyers in the area practicing bombing runs.  If you or Falcon get into trouble, they might be in the area and available for your use."  I knew what he meant by the term "fast flyers."  They were the code name for the F-100 Super Sabers of the 524th Fighter Wing recently stationed at Udorn.  They were not allowed, by the Geneva Convention, to operate in Laos, but I guess they practiced there...yeah, right!  He then drove us back to the helicopter pad, dropped us off, and then drove away.  I was surprised because I had never seen Bradley at Long Trieng.  He was always in Vientiane.  Very strange, this turn of events, I thought.

MSgt Al Chang / The National Archives

Typical SF Strike Team

  After we got out of the car, Peterson told both Akkrat and myself that we would leave the next evening.  That would give us about 24 hours to round up whatever we needed for the mission.  When we got over to the H-34's, Akkrat had already loaded axes, shovels, pry bars, and other tools on one of the helicopters along with a couple of cases of AK-47 ammo and two cases of grenades.  I would provide him with some C-4 and det cord after we got on the ground.  Lt. Peterson dismissed us at that point and let us go our own ways for the next 24 hours.  He said he was going to take his team out into the surrounding jungle and do a little more training before bedding down for the night.  With that, he rounded up his people and headed south.  I noticed that Peterson's men were also a mixture of SF and Indig guys.  I asked him who they were.  He said, " These guys are the best that the South Vietnamese have as soldiers.  They are the equivalent of our Special Forces.  They have been trained in the U.S. at our Special Forces School at Ft. Bragg.  They are arranged just like our teams except that they are numbered differently."  I already knew this from previous missions, but it was good to be informed of it again. I won't go over this again because I have previously wrote about it and it really isn't that important here.  When I counted the members of Falcon's team, it was three U.S. SF guys and nine Vietnamese.  This was a rather large group.  Most trail watch teams were made of four, five or six members.  Recon teams normally didn't have this many men.  So, I was puzzled about this mission, that is for sure.  I had previously loaded my rucksack with what I needed for most three day missions, so I added some extra rations and water.  I then decided that my Swedish K sub-machine gun might not be suitable for this mission and loaded my FN-FAL Belgium battle rifle into the chopper.  It turned out later to be the right choice.  According the the map there was a large cleared area where I would be located so a longer range weapon would be more appropriate.

I threw in twenty, twenty round clips of ammo plus 200 rounds of loose ammo which I would pack up in the morning.  The beauty of the FN-FAL was that it was very accurate out to 600 yards and effective out to a  1000 yards.  It weighed about the same as the M-14 and used the same ammunition which was readily available in Laos.  I prefered 150 grain FMJ bullets over the 140 or 165 grain bullets also available at the time.  My FN-FAL had a snap on scope and I carried 20 rounds of specially loaded match grade 7.62 X .51 that was zeroed to the scope at 600 yards.  It could also deliver an automatic rate of fire of about 600 rounds per minute. The disadvantage of using any battle rifle is the extra weight of the weapon along with larger heavier ammo.  But the heavier bullet could cut through brush as compared to my 9MM weapons.  I had been in and out of Laos for just about a year now, so I was pretty well prepared for most situations.  After all, I had been a Boy Scout.  Later in the evening Akkrat and his men showed up and he posted guards on the choppers since they were loaded with weapons and ammunition.  The remaining PARU climbed in various H-34's and slept in them that evening.  I went to the Air America hooch and sacked out on a cot.

The FN FAL Automatic Rifle recently built in Brazil under license

Belgium FN-FAL 7.62 X 51 (One of the best weapons I have ever fired)

The next morning I was awake by 6 AM and went out to check of Akkrat.  They were already cooking their breakfast of meat and rice.  I checked the helicopters to make sure our gear was still there (it sometimes mysteriously disappeared if left unwatched).  Everything appeared in order.  The SF guys had pitched some shelter halves on the southeast side of the runway and were now taking them down.  Peterson organized his group and they took off on a morning run.  They ended up doing about five miles or so.  Then they prepared their morning meals.  They invited me to share some of their food, but in those days, I rarely ate breakfast.  Maybe a piece of toast or something light and some juice, but that was about it.

Everything the rest of the morning and early afternoon was pretty relaxed with everyone working on their weapons and packing their rucksacks.  About 5 PM, the aircrews starting showing up.  These were not Air America aircrews.  I don't know who they were, but certainly not our AA guys.  They were probably French Mercs as they spoke French and also English with a French accent, but they could have been anyone.  It was then that it dawned on me that there were no AA marking on the helicopters.  Matter of fact, there were no markings of any kind...except for a single line aircraft number.  The only place I saw helicopters like these were on the drug raids.  This told me that this mission was special indeed.  It also came to me that we might not be snatching a person....maybe something else.  Well, that was for someone else to worry about as we were about to set off for the DMZ or at least close to it.

Peterson went around and did a weapons and gear check and we all boarded the choppers.  Peterson said that we would stop at a safe LS and refuel from the support helicopters when we got within 60 miles of the insertion site.  Remember, that above with the picture of the H-34's I stated that the range of the H-34 was about 182 miles.  To make sure they had hover time around the insertion sites, they would refuel before instead of after the insertion.  I also knew that we would have some T-28's, call sign "Cobra"  standing off at some distance just in case we needed assistance.  We lifted off and headed west.  After about an hour's flying time we found the LS we would use for refueling and landed.  We had a four choppers with us and four still sitting at Long Trieng in case of an emergency.  The two refueling helicopter would remain at this LS until the two transporting the two teams came back and the all four would fly back to Long Trieng.  After we landed I was glad to see some of General Vang Pao's troops come out of the jungle and they helped with the refueling.  They were sent to guard the LS and to protect the helicopters that would remain here.  There must have been between fifty and one-hundred of them armed with M-1 carbines and M-1 Garand rifles.  All of this was supplied to the army of General Vang Pao by the CIA and was WWII and Korean War surplus.

After about an hour, having refueled, we took off again for our destinations.  The pilots knew exactly where they were going and they were flying as low as they could.  After a while, I noticed that the chopper carrying Peterson and his team had disappeared.  It had split off for it's destination which wasn't the same as ours.  We flew in low over a simi-open area on the side of the mountain.  The elephant grass was at least ten feet tall and the space too small to land the choppers in.  The pilot dropped down as close as he could and we started throwing our gear out the door to ground below.  The PARU had already rigged the ropes and we climbed down them to the ground below.  Later on there was rappelling gear and harnesses and such, but we didn't have them at this time.  So you just scrambled down the ropes.  As soon as we were all on the ground, the chopper took off and moved some five miles away and began doing dummy insertions just in case the enemy was watching.  That way, he would have to guess as to which one was the real deal if in fact any of them were.  All we could hope for is that no one saw us as we inserted.  It would be a short mission if anyone had seen us.  After awhile, I didn't hear or see the H-34's  any longer.  I did do a radio check with them to make sure our radios were good to go.

Akkrat began setting up a defensive perimeter and got things ready for the first night on the mountain.  We were, at least according to my altimeter, about 2500 feet ASL.  I told Akkrat I needed to make my way to the other side of the mountain and needed him to let me know who was going with me.  He had already selected the three guys and he called them over.  All three spoke passable English so I would be alright communicating with them.  I was glad they were Thais.  I never really trusted the Laotians I worked with as they could easily be Pathet Lao plants.  They picked up my two radios, their packs and weapons, and we set off for the east side of the mountain.  It would take us more than six hours to get to a position where we could watch the valley below.  After we arrived at our watch site, we settled in for the night with each of us pulling two hours of guard duty during the night.  However, the night was going to be anything but quiet and peaceful.

(To be Continued)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Akkrat and the PARU

I have spoken many times in my posts about Akkrat, a Thai mercenary and part of Bill Lair's clandestine army in Thailand.  I knew what his last name was, but it was multi-sylable and even if I knew it, I couldn't spell it.   He was my indigenous (indig) counterpart when I was in Laos.  We became good friends and each of us understood the other's job.  When it came to ground operations, he was the team leader.   I respected his intuition and savvy.  When it came to the air operations, I was in charge.  Together, we made a really good team.   He was a seasoned fighter having been at war for four years.  He was six years older than me, and had a lot of experience in fighting the Pathet Lao.  In our military terms he was probably a sergeant, certainly not an officer.  He spoke his native tongue of course, but also English, French, and Lao.  All PARU personnel were at least high school graduates, and most spoke a language from a neighboring country in addition to Thai. They were trained at a jungle camp in central Thailand and organized like the US Army Special Forces.  Akkrat was the indig equivalent of Lt. Peterson, the 1-0 of Team Falcon.  He had been to the U.S. Army Ranger School in the states in  either 1959 or 1960.  Counter-guerrilla tactics were one of the PARU specialties. Akkrat's  father had been employed by the French as an interpreter during the French wars against the Vietnamese and Laotians in the late 1940's and 1950's.  Bill Lair had been asked by Tony Poe, one of the CIA station chiefs in Laos, for some of Lairs mercenaries.  Akkrat had been one of the first to be sent north to Long Tieng.  The PARU could be found all over the southern part of Laos working with various CIA operations, U.S. Army Special Forces units, and Gen Vang Pao's Hmongs.

Akkrat was married and had several children.  When he wasn't on a hump somewhere, he was at home with his wife and children or training more PARU mercenaries. He was with me on most of the operations I was involved in but his team changed constantly as he trained new personnel in this specialized type of warfare.  I rarely saw the same indigs on consecutive missions except for Akkrat.  I once asked him if he could trust all of these different trainees and his word to me was this:  "If I didn't trust them, they would be dead. Then, I could really trust them."  I learned over a short period of time to trust his instincts and experience.  He had a second sense when it came to knowing where the enemy were hiding or setting up an ambush to kill or capture us.  He taught me that you need to become one with the jungle, one with the mountains, one with the people.  I tried to be like that, and in some areas I was quite good at it.  But in others, I was too much of a flatlander to get all of it.  In return he learned from me the world of handling tactical air assets over the insertion and extraction sites.  Akkrat was cool under stress and it was if being in combat was normal to him.  Every time we engaged the enemy, he took it almost as a personal quest to kill them all.  He wasn't about to leave anyone behind that could carry a weapon against him ever again.  He was absolutely fearless in the face of death.  I have no idea how many times he was wounded, but I saw enough scars to know he had been shot several times and survived.  He was wounded four times on our operations, mostly from shrapnal, and I have no idea as to how many other times he was wounded when working with  Bailey.  I once told him he was living a charmed life with so many bullets trying to find him and few doing so.   He replied that he was alive because it just wasn't his time to die.  But, he knew that one day he would be killed by the enemy he hated so much.  That would be when it was his time to die.  I, on the other hand, figured that there was a bullet with my name on it and I was going to get it at some point so why worry about it. I didn't think this bullet would  necessarily be in Laos.....that bullet could be cancer, heart attack, or a traffic accident.   No matter what, a "bullet" would find me someday.  What I really worried about was the bullet that had written on it, "To whom it may concern."  Most everyone that experiences combat knows about that bullet.  It's also called the "golden BB."  It's not necessarily aimed at you but it is just randomly fired and finds you.  That bullet I worried about.

Akkrat was a Buddhist.  I saw him burn incense several times and I know he prayed to Buddha.  He once explained to me he was a Theravada Buddhist.   And all I know about that you could put in a thimble.  I know that it pained him to harm animals or innocent people, but I don't think it effected how he dealt with the enemy  in Laos at all.  I never mentioned my own I thought I had none at this time and didn't really try to find out much about his.  He had learned English at a Catholic School near his home in Thailand so I know he was exposed to Christianity.   After he had graduated in from high school, he joined the Thai army.  That is where he was selected by Bill Lair for the PARU.  The PARU were held in high esteem by their countrymen and were paid substantially more money than the regular Thai army troops.  This tended to cause them to remain PARU for several enlistments or until they were disabled or killed.  By the time I got to Laos, Akkrat had lost close friends and family to the war in Laos.  I was so impressed with him that I arranged with Col. Bradley to get him any materials and weapons he desired for himself and his team.   Of course, they preferred the AK-47 and so a ready supply of these was made available plus all the ammunition they needed.   And as I mentioned in another post, they could always pick up ammunition from the dead enemy soldiers who used the same weapons. Akkrat had his team set up much like the SF SOG teams.  He was effectively the 1-0, although he never used the term.  His radio operator was the 1-1, and his weapons specialist was his 1-2.  Akkrat usually walked point with one of the PARU walking trail.  The other team member might be behind Akkrat or it could be me.  We were always about 10 yards apart.  Again, this early into the war, the trails were not as booby trapped as they would be later on.  Even so, we avoided them when we could.  I spend a lot of time working with Akkrat and his 1-1 on radio operations and procedures just in case I went down for the count at some point.  At least they could make do and call for help.  It actually worked out that when Lao pilots were overhead, I could use Akkrat or the radio operator to talk to the pilots in their own language which was really beneficial.  It prevented a lot of miscommunication. 

On a side note, this might be a good time to mention the people of S.E. Asia in general.  This would include the S. Vietnamese, Laotians, Thais, and Cambodians.  They were, for the most part, a simple and wonderful group of people.  They were a kind an gentle people.  None of them wanted war.  They could care less who was in charge of the government as long as they had a small piece of land to grow what they needed to survive.  These people were locked in a time warp.  They were living as they had for centuries with no desire to modernize. They didn't care if the government was Capitalistic, Communist, or whatever.  They just wanted to live in peace and be left alone to live their lives.  I have got to tell you the truth here, I learned to respect those people and I loved the beauty of their countries.  It was if you stepped back in time when you were out away from Vientiane, the capital city and CIA hub.  The jungle was absolutely spectacular with its flowers and greenery and birds and animals.  I could easily have just stayed there....except there was a war gong on and that created an ugliness that took away from the beauty of it all. 

I knew what my job was and it wasn't running Akkrat's team.  That was his job.  My job was to provide for insertions and extractions and controlling aircraft overhead.  His job was to keep me alive to do my job.  The SF guys also respected Akkrat and leaned on him for a lot of information about the area we were dropped into.  Holding the LS and keeping the enemy at bay was also our job.  The SF guys, ran the recon missions and prisoner snatches.  Several times the SF guys would be running hot, meaning the enemy was in close pursuit. Our alternate job was to provide cover fire and/or merge with them to defend the LS and push the enemy away from the site.  Fortunately for us, at this early point in the wars in S.E. Asia, the Pathet Lao were not as well organized nor as dedicated as they would become later on in the war. We also did not have to confront large contingents of NVA troops.  On occasion we ran into them as I mentioned in a previous post, but it was not the norm.  They tended to remain close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and not push out into the surrounding mountains.   This wasn't always the case, but for the most part it was, especially in 1963 and 1964.  They were trying to move into the PDJ, but their success in that effort would not bear fruit until the late 60's.  By 1968, from what I have been able to discover, the NVA had literally thousands of troops all along the HCM and up into the mountains surrounding it.  Many SOG teams disappeared into those jungles in 1968 and beyond  and were never to be heard of again.  Most of those teams ran into heavy concentrations of NVA and by that time, the NVA had their own hunter/killer teams tracking SOG guys.

Anyway, Akkrat was a really good guy and family man.  He talked about his kids and wife.  His father had taught him much about the jungle and the Ranger School in the states had taught him a lot about war and survival.  I have no idea as to what happened to Akkrat.  Probably, only the jungle knows.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Odds and Ends

I thought it was about time to add some stuff I missed earlier in my posts.  Someone sent me an email and asked me what we carried in the field.  That's a good question because what my team carried on a hump was different in many respects from what the SOG teams carried.  Where the SF SOG guys would carry up to 90 pounds of gear, we carried 60 or 70 at most.  Thais were smaller people so they had to carry smaller loads. 

WWII BAR Cartridge belt and suspenders.
My Thais carried  AK-47s, smoke grenades, M-26 fragmentation grenades, and anywhere from 200 to 600 rounds of ammo each, depending on the length of the mission and where we were going.  Akkrat told me many times that they didn't need a lot of ammo because they could always pick it up off dead enemy soldiers.  The Thais carried some rice and dried meat, usually enough to get them by for three to five days.  They carried one or two canteens of water and some water purification tablets.  One of them carried my PRC-10 or 15 radio.  Another carried my GRC-109 HF radio and antenna system.  They did not carry sleeping bags, hammocks, or other bedding stuff. They also had, but did not carry very often, a poncho.  None wore metal helmets.  They, more often than not, dressed in NVA or Pathet Lao uniforms, because at a distance, they couldn't be identified as Thais.  They wore locally manufactured sandals and not combat boots.  The tracks they left were just like the ones the Pathet Lao would have left.  One of their mainstays were their knives and each one had two.  One was usually a stiletto of some kind and the other a locally manufactured very sharp knife heavy enough to  cut through most anything.  They also had machetes.  

Now for the stuff I carried.  First off was my Swedish SK or my FN-FAL Rifle.  I also occasionally carried an AK-47 but not normally.  I frankly didn't like it's feel, its accuracy, or its lack of long range impact.  I usually managed to carry 500 rounds of ammo for the SK, less for the larger FAL.  I wore a WWII and Korean War vintage BAR belt and suspenders.  The ammo pouches were really good for carrying ammo and other items.  I carried two canteens of water and water purification tablets.  I carried the same rations the Thais carried, but occasionally I would sneak in a can of fruit from some C rations.  I carried a compass around my neck and only a portion of the map I was given for the mission.  All that was necessary was the actual area we were going to operate in.  I carried anywhere from four to eight M-26 frags plus at least one white phosphorous grenade.   Two smoke canisters.   A UC-10 emergency radio and an extra battery was carried in my pack.  I did wear high top German made jump boots because I could tuck my pants legs into the tops of them to discourage the leeches from crawling up my leg. It rarely made any difference because the leeches seemed to always find a way to attach themselves to you.  I also had some kind of military insect repellent that you could spray the leeches with and make them fall off.  I learned early on that you didn't pull a leech off once it attached itself to you because you would bleed for an hour or more after doing it.  Once it attached itself, just let it feed and once it has it's meal, it will fall off on its own with a lot less blood loss.  I carried a camo towel that I put around my neck and tucked into my shirt for the same purpose; to keep the leeches off.  Believe me, no matter what you did, you were going to get leeches on you, especially during the rainy season.  I also used friction tape to close my cuffs on my sleeves that helped to keep leeches off your arms and upper torso.  It would have been great to have had some velco attachment tape but it wasn't invented at this time.

I carried a small flashlight and extra batteries.   I had a Beretta Model M1951 9MM automatic pistol and holster with six clips.  Either, I, or Akkrat, would sometimes carry a 22 caliber pistol with silencer for taking out guards and finishing off wounded enemy soldiers.  I carried a tube of waterproof matches, but I never lit a fire the whole time I was in and out of least not on a hump.  I wore German military fatigues with no patches or identification at all.  Sometimes a bush jacket.  I had a set of green leather work gloves.  Sometimes I wore a bush hat, but mostly an old Marine Corps cover (it's a hat, but the Corps doesn't like it called that) . On occasion, when Bradley thought it would appropriate, I wore a  PL uniform. .  After all, I was tanned and only five foot seven inches tall.  Fit in real well with the Thais.  There was one thing I learned from the SF guys.  They told me not to wear socks or underwear.  We stayed wet all the time and because your underwear and socks would never dry out, you ended up with some kind of jungle rot that there was no cure for.   I learned that lesson a little late.  I still have a foot fungus that no doctor has been able to get rid of.  It's controllable, but if you forget to treat it every month, it comes back with a vengeance.  A Navy corpsman first aid bag was tied to the pack.  I carried a sweater because at the higher altitudes we operated in, it could get down right cold at night, especially after a rain.  You wouldn't think that would be the case in SE Asia, but it was.  I carried pen flairs and 25 feet of green parachute cord.  I also had my trusty K-Bar knife and a really sharp bayonet from an M-1 Carbine.  While the Thais carried machetes, I carried pilot's survival tool which I had been given by an Air America pilot.  Turns out, it was a very early model of the Frank and Warren Survival Axe.  It was really good at cutting through razor or elephant grass and sticky vines.  A picture of it is below.  It is not the same one I had but very close in appearance.  
Frank and Warren Survival Axe.

Something I didn't have originally, that the SF guys did, was Claymore mines.  At some point, Lt. Peterson gave me a dozen with some detonators and some 5, 10 and 30 second fuses and he had one of his guys show us how to use them.  They were devastating on enemy troops.  If the enemy was in pursuit of you, this was one really good option to slow them down.

ファイル:M18 Claymore Mine.jpg
Claymore Mine

Everything we carried had to be sound proofed.  You taped ever thing that could clank or clink against anything else,   We threw away the cup in the bottom of the canteen cover because the canteen rubbing against it would make noise that could be heard at quite some distance. We removed the canteen lid and cut the chain to eliminate another noise factor.  Anything that would reflect light was covered with tape.  I wore my watch upside down to prevent the radium numbers and hands from showing in the dark.  I carried my K-Bar knife taped to my suspenders upside down.  I did not carry a poncho or rain gear.  I mentioned the Thais didn't carry any either and there was a reason for that.  Rain, falling on a poncho makes a very audible noise in the jungle.  It's a different sound that any tracker would know wasn't natural.  It was a huge risk to wear one or to cover yourself with one when it was raining and if it wasn't raining you didn't need it anyway.
There were four priorities on a hump:  Weapons, ammunition, water and radios.  You could go with out food but to run out of ammo or have a radio fail was truly a bad thing.  Ammo and radios gave you a chance of surviving  enemy encounters.  You surrendered the creature comforts for more ammo, grenades and radio batteries in every case.

As to the SF guys, they carried a lot of ammo, grenades, claymore mines, C-4, radios, batteries, and their weapons.  They went light on creature comforts  as well.  They did carry C and K rations.  I never saw any MRE's so I don't know if they existed that early in the war, but they could have had them.  Sometimes they had a M-79 grenade launcher with ten or twelve rounds of ammunition.  They wore military uniforms but no rank or other identifying patches were on them.  They also packed a sweater or jacket for the cool temperatures at altitude in the mountains of Laos.  One SF guy on a team I worked with twice, carried a sawed off 12 gauge pump shotgun.  The SF guys probably had stuff I never saw and was never intended to see.  They all had a side arm of some kind, mostly Colt 1911 45 caliber automatics.  They also carried K-Bar knives.   So, that is how we were equipped.  I am sure I have missed something, but its been a long time since I had to carry that stuff into the field.  If I think of anything, I will add it later in an edit.

Another Point

There has been some controversy over whether or not I was a combat controller.  Some CCT's have said that since I didn't go through the Hurlburt pipeline, was not assigned a CCT MOS, or did the more conventional things that other CCT's did,  that I was not one of them.  Because I operated in a war that didn't exist, the records were scrubbed and that was what I was told would be the case.  That was reiterated in my first briefing with Col. Bradley.  These CCT;s attitude is that I was an air traffic controller working in a combat setting.  Others said that I was a tactical air/ground controller, more or less an SF guy or a Army Pathfinder, but in the U.S.Air Force.  One said that I was just an Air Force SOG Team member.  On the other hand, some CCT's  have said that they had heard of our operations, but didn't know who was doing them or what unit they were with.  To put the record straight as best I can, I was recruited to be a combat controller.  Because of the nature of where I was intended to be posted, in a war that didn't exist, Bailey and I were trained differently so that in effect we didn't exist.. There were two others being trained as well, but they came somewhat after Baily and me so I am not sure who they were or exactly where they went.  I was trained by, whom I was told at the time, were older seasoned combat controllers.  I knew them by their call signs and the word sergeant .Maybe they weren't.  They could have been CIA or Army Special Forces personnel for all I know.  Hell, I was eighteen years old when I started training for Laos and probably would have believed anything they said.  We were not trained at Hurlburt but rather at Webb AFB in Texas where they had a number of T-28's and some Laotian and Thai pilots who were being trained to fly them there.  That was not by accident that we were receiving our training at Webb.  I would be controlling these same pilots in Laos a year or so later.  The Laotians and Thais could speak passable English, but there were times when some language issues existed.  We tried to work those out in the training.  The same thing with Ft. Bragg.  We did most of our weapons, escape and evasion, and jump training with Special Forces Teams, especially the guys who would eventually make up some of the SOG teams.  They would be the guys who I would work with 90 percent of the time in Laos.  Since we trained some Hmong soldiers to be FAGs (Forward Air Guides), I suppose we could have been that as well.  If I wasn't a combat controller, I have no idea as to what I should be called.  Maybe the title tactical air/ground controller is more suited to what I actually did.  But, it doesn't bother me either way.  I did what I did thinking I was a combat controller.  If I wasn't, then, so be it. Whatever you called what I did, it was pretty darn dangerous. 

File:Webb AFB Postcard - Main Gate.jpg
Main Gate Webb AFB  About 1962 or So.

I do know that later on, the SF guys actually called in their own air strikes and carried out their extractions with American Armed Forces personnel rather than how we had to do it using Air America.  I did a little research and they had what they called Covey Riders who rode with the FAC's and directed aircraft to targets.  They also were able to keep FAC's (Forward Air Controllers) orbiting overhead directing air strikes against enemy positions for long periods of time.   We had no so availability.  Just the Lao Air Force of a few planes and Air America's helicopters and fixed wing STOL aircraft.  I can only remember one time that I was able to call in F-100's on a target and the AAR (after action report) had to state that they dropped their bombs by accident not knowing exactly where they were.  I believe the F-100's were part of the 524th Fighter Wing out of Udorn or Tahkli.   Not real sure about that, but they were in the area during that time period.  And their bombs saved a SF SOG team for extermination. 

AAR's or After Action Reports

After each operation both the SF 1-0 and I had to fill out what was called an AAR.  This "after action report" would be reviewed by the CIA and MACV in Saigon.  Since I did not go on many complete missions, but was responsible for the LS, I never knew exactly what the SF 1-0 would put in his report.  My AAR would detail out what my team's part of the mission encountered and accomplished.  You had to note on a map where you encountered and/or engaged enemy troops.  I had to indicate on the map any kind of AA or AAA fire we saw our aircraft encounter.  You had to note who was injured, wounded, or killed.  You had to make as accurate count as possible of enemy KIAs or those wounded that may have gotten back to their own people.  It was a the responsibility of the PARU, if they had time, to get as much information off the enemy bodies as they could.  If it was NVA troops, they tore or cut off any unit chevrons so we could develop intel on their units.   I had to review how the Air America pilots handled their ends of the mission and also how the PARU responded  in combat situations.  I always had to make suggestions on how we could improve what we were doing.  I always said we needed more air power over the LS when we were making insertions and extractions.  I also always added that we needed heavy lift helicopters besides the H-34's and Bell 204's.  We never got any of the heavy lift stuff, but I still asked for it time and time again.

After the AAR was filed, it was not uncommon to have someone come get you and take you to some building somewhere in Vientiane (it was never the same building or even on the same street) and you would have to answer questions for several hours about the mission.  I don't know who those folks were, but they were in suits and ties, not military uniforms.  But that would not have been all that unusual in Laos. They wanted to make sure that what you put on the AAR jived with what you actually saw or encountered in the field.  It was like taking a test in high school, but all the questions had to be answered "yes" or "no."  Something like this: "Your AAR says that your team took fire from 12.7 AA weapons.  Yes or no?   On your AAR you state that you did not see any indication of 37 MM AA weapons, yes or no?"  And that is how it went for one, two, or even four hours.  I hope that gives you an indication of what an AAR is and what it is supposed to tell the higher ups.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Life, Death and Faith on the Battlefield

Growing up in the 40's and 50's was a great thing.  It was a wonderful time to be a kid and living out in the countryside.  I had uncles and cousins that had come back from WWII and each had numerous stories to tell about their time in the military and WWII.  Some of their stories I didn't understand at the time and some were so scary I couldn't sleep on some nights after hearing them.  Not only that, but all my friends had fathers who had fought in WWII in one capacity or another.  My best friends father was exempt, I think, because of some health problem.  The father of two of my friends was a B-17 pilot and rose to the rank of Colonel in the 8th Air Force.  He was one of those who flew to the end of the war no matter how many missions that he had completed.  I had friends whose fathers had been in the Navy, Army Air Corp, Marine Corps, and U.S. Army Infantry.  I lived in the age of real heroes.  Not athletic heroes, but warrior heroes.  Patton, Nimitz, Eisenhower, Bradley, and MacArthur, to just name a few.  I dreamed of someday being like them and being a hero myself.  I must have had at least 500 of the little toy soldiers and tanks and artillery pieces.  I played war constantly as a kid, plotting strategy and operations.  I knew long before I knew a lot else that I was going to go into the military when I got out of school.

And from a very early age I heard the old adage, "There are no atheists in a foxhole."  Well, I was never sure that was correct, but I would get to find out for myself 12 or so years later in S.E. Asia.  I grew up in a household that consisted of my mother, grandmother (my mother's mother), my stepfather (who I thought was my real dad for many years), and my sister.  We first lived on a 12 acre parcel that my grandfather gave my grandmother when they divorced.  I was born in the old farmhouse on that property in December of 1942.  My grandfather then sold the rest of his land and bought a farm  in Kaufman, Texas, where he lived until he died in 1965 or so.  My grandmother sold the last 12 acres to a real estate developer and bought two houses on a street just about a quarter mile from the old homestead.  We were not a family of faith although my grandmother believed in God, but not necessarily did she believe in Christ.  I don't think I can remember her ever going to church although I know she did when she was young.  My stepfather grew up in a family that went to church and believed in God and Jesus Christ.  However, he didn't often go to church when he was living with us.  

However, they did make me and my sister go to Sunday School and sometimes church.  Occasionally, my mother and stepfather would go, but it was a rare event.  In this little Baptist Church, the children's Sunday School stressed memorizing the scriptures.   I hated it...boy did I hate doing that.  But, you had to do it or get ridiculed for not doing it.  I remember at the age of 7 or 8 memorizing The Lord's Prayer and the 23 rd Psalm.  And, of course we memorized some of the sayings of Jesus.  A note is needed here:  I hated going to Sunday School and Church in general.  Just hated it.  Didn't want to be there at all, especially on really pretty Sundays when I could down at the creek fishing or out in the fields hunting jack rabbits.  I was not an inside person.  I liked being outside and church was inside.  Didn't like it ..... didn't want it.... thought for sure I didn't need it.  Heck, no warrior needed the was for weenies.   And I certainly didn't see myself as one of those.

At some point, I found out my stepfather wasn't my real father and that started a rebellion on my part that eventually caused my stepfather to leave and get a divorce from my mother.  I was eleven and I raised so much hell over their not telling me the truth, that there was no way they could have stayed together unless they got rid of me.....and I am sure they thought about that at some point.  I got to a point where I actually hated my stepfather (and he was always good to me, I have to say that because it is true) and my mother.  It eventually got to the point that I had to move out and move in with my grandmother.  I still have a rage within me about the lies they told me as a kid.   All their lies just encouraged me to lie as well.  It was an unhappy ending to a family, and I think my sister still holds that against me.  She was actually my half-sister, my mother's daughter but my stepfather was her father.  I could never get anyone in my family to talk about my real father and his family.  A lot more lies were told trying to keep me from finding out who he was.

My mother went through a series of boyfriends and finally married a man who was an alcoholic but quit drinking when he married my mother.  At least, we all thought he did.  I had moved back in with my mother at this point, but I was never really happy in that environment.  I once again moved back in with my grandmother.  I went to church for the last time when I was 11 years old, at least as a worshiper.  I was in the Boy Scouts by this time and we were sponsored by the Methodist Church in our town and so there was always programs at the  church I had to attend that had to do with Scouting.  Scouting and baseball were my two escapes from my family realities.  I eventually, with no help from my family, made Eagle Scout.  I worked as a counselor at summer camp several times and made a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch, the highlight of my scouting years.  There are two mottoes I still live by even today and they are scout mottoes:  Be  Prepared and Do a Good Turn Daily.  I kind of take the "Be Prepared" one to the extreme even today because I have backups for everything.  I almost two of everything just to make sure I have one that works.
Its just the way I'm wired.

When I graduated from high school, I immediately went down to the recruiting office in Dallas, Texas, and tried to join the Marines (that is a story in itself).  They said I was too small and that I needed to grow some more before I could become a Marine.  Talk about a put down.....I was down in the dumps for several days over that incident.  Then I decided, what the hell, I'll just go join the U.S. Air Force.  ( That is also another story).  I finally was able to sign up and was told that I would leave for basic training in September.  Well, that was okay with me because it gave me some time with my girlfriend and the whole summer to enjoy doing what I wanted.  In September I left for basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas.

Now, we'll jump to two and a half years later in Laos.  Faith is a funny thing.  I never thought I had any.  I was always suspicious of most folks and I never allowed anyone in real close to me and I certainly didn't trust any overly religious Christian.  I trusted very few people outside my small circle of influence.  I did trust the SF guys I worked with and my own PARU's. I never trusted Colonel Bradley, Tony Poe, or any of the CIA personnel.  And.....I certainly never trusted in God....any god of any kind.  By this time it had been almost ten years since I had been to church.  I didn't believe that God existed and Jesus Christ was just another man who had some strange philosophy that I didn't like.  Love your enemies.....right!  Do unto others as you would have then do unto you....yeah, that works real well in this hell called Laos.  But, at the time I had even forgotten those verses.  

Then there was LS 224.  I am not really sure that was the LS.  It could have been 284.  It's been a long time since then.  We were called and told that we needed to go to this LS. I was to take seven PARU with me and we were to land and hold this particular LS until a SF Team arrived that was "running hot."  "Running hot" meant that the team was in contact with enemy forces and  making a run for it with the enemy in pursuit.  I was told by Col. Bradley to carry extra grenades and ammo.  I was told this might be an extremely dangerous operation.  I would have four T-28's overhead for air assets.  I met my team on the tarmac at Wattay and boarded two choppers and headed to the site.  It was over an hour's flying time there.  When we arrived it was pretty quiet on the ground.  I assumed this LS was under Gen. Vang Pao's control.  Bad assumption.  While there were no enemy troops in the immediate area, it wasn't under the general's control. Akkrat was the indigenous team leader and he had a few guys I had not seem before.  Akkrat told me he was training some new members of his unit and they needed some real experience in the field.

After landing we set up our radios and I notified Vientiane that we were on the ground.  I then tried to contact the SF team to find out what their situation might be.  After several tries I finally made radio contact and was told that they had been ambushed and had wounded with them.  I gave them the map reference as to the location of the LS.  They told me they were at least six hours from our location and would try to get there sooner if possible.  Akkrat set up a defensive perimeter with his men on the upper side of the LS.  You always assume that you have been spotted by someone friendly with the enemy if not by the enemy themselves.  The helicopters had by that time headed back to Wattay to refuel.  However two other choppers were on the way just in case we had to get out before the SF team made it to our location.  If they were not needed by the time they reached us, they would land at an LS 30 minutes away at an LS controlled by Vang Pao's troops and refuel as they were carrying extra fuel with them. Everything was pretty quiet for the next four hours.  We had good cover and a good defensive position.  There was nothing to do but wait for the SF guys to arrive.

About 1600 hours (4PM) we hear intermittent gunfire below us.  I got in contact with the SF radio operator, the one two in SF terms, and asked him their ETA.  He said they could see the LS from their location and would be there in an hour.  What he didn't say was that the PL also saw the LS.  However, they did not know we were there.  They assumed, as they often did, that the SF team was all that were going to have to overcome.  It was apparent that the PL troops saw the LS as they were trying to flank the SF team.  I happened to catch a glimpse of them and realized what they were up to.  I radioed the SF team that they were being flanked to the north.  The radio operator said that his 1-0 told him to tell us to deal with it best we could.  That must be a standard SF saying.  I heard it a lot when I was in Laos.

From previous experience I knew they would try to get above the LS so they could be firing down on the SF team as it came to the LS.  I called Akkrat over and told him the situation.  We needed to get higher up because my guess was they they would come to this very spot we were defending.  We made a mad scramble up the mountain about 50 yards and repositioned ourselves for what might come our way.   Boy, it would have been nice to have some claymore mines, but we didn't.  It wasn't long until the PL troops showed up and did exactly what I had thought they would do.  They moved to the position we had just left.
There were at least twenty of them.  Akkrat gave the signal to use hand grenades.  Everyone put two of them in front of their position.  When they PL troops looked like they had settled in, we pulled the pins and tossed them down on the unsuspecting PL soldiers. Then hell broke lose.  The grenades went off and immediately the remaining PL soldiers turned and opened fire on us.  Tracers were flying around everywhere, but mostly over our heads.  Some of the PL guys tried to climb up towards us, but one of Akkrat's men dispatched them with a burst of AK fire.  I saw a grenade thrown our way but it landed way short of us and went off harmlessly.  The rifle fire was so intense that leaves, limbs and grass fragments were flying around everywhere, not to mention the bullets.  One of the PARU took a bullet to the head and died before he hit the ground.  It was at this point that I can remember saying this:  "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  Though I walk through the valley of the shadow, I will fear no evil."  It had been ten years at least since I had heard or said those words.  In the midst of all this mayhem, here I am spouting Bible verses and I don't even believe in God.  It's a funny thing, but I remember this moment more than any other from my time in Laos.  Here I was, a so-called atheist, saying Bible verses I learned in Sunday School.  Bullets, grenades and I'm in a  hell on earth and I am saying Bible verses.  A few moments later the SF team made it to the LS and joined in the battle.  I was able to crawl over to the radio and call the support aircraft and told them I needed them to drop their ordinance 200 yards east of the smoke.  I pulled the pin on the smoke canister and threw it as far down the mountain as I could.  A T-28 peeled in and dropped some 100lb bombs right where we needed them.  Then I heard the helicopters to our west.  Another T-28 made a pass and dropped his bombs.  By this time the SF team had finished off the remaining PL troops immediately in front of front of us.  I didn't see any others below.  The choppers swooped in, we loaded the wounded and the dead, jumped in ourselves as the last T-28 made his pass over the enemies position.  And then, we got the hell out of Dodge.

When we arrived at Long Trieng, the SF team had been pretty well shot up.  Everyone on their team was wounded in some form or another.  They had lost their 1-1 weapons specialist and three of their six indigenous S. Vietnamese SF team members.  Our team had four wounded and one dead.  One of the remarkable things about this incident was that I didn't get so much as piece of shell fragment off the ricochets as they hit the rocks and trees.   Another funny thing about all of this is that it bothered me to talk about the Bible verses.  It was like it made me less of a man because I was saying this know what,  I wasn't saying it, I was praying it.  Did God save me that day?  I don't really have an answer for that, but I can hope that he did.  After I became a Christian, I told this story in front of church congregations and most believe that God preserved me just so I could tell this story. 

Whatever the case may be, I am glad I was on that mountain that day.  What I learned about myself has lasted a life time. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Shot Down at Ban Hoeui San

Here is the story of the time we got shot down looking for an Air America C-46 that was shot down near the hamlet of Ban Hoeui San.  In the previous post I sent you to the Air America web page where you could read about this crash of this aircraft after receiving AAA fire while making a food drop to the Hmongs in the area.  There were at least two and maybe as many as four attempts to find the aircraft and recover the aircrew.  None were successful, but there had to be an effort because some of those in the aircrew were Americans. 

This event happened on September 5, 1963.  I, with my PARU team had just come back from an operation near the HCM Trail with an Army Special Forces team.  I was told that Col. Bradley wanted me to return to Vientiane with my team immediately.  When I arrived at Wattay Airport, Col. Bradley was waiting on me.  I old Akkrat to stand down and I went with Col Bradley to his office north of the airport.  He told me about the downed aircraft.  I was also told that one aircraft had tried to get to the site from Savannakhet, but encountered too much AAA fire to proceed.  Two T-28's had also tried to get near the site and were almost shot down themselves.  Col. Bradley asked if I wanted to make a run at it, but do it from the ground rather than try to fly to the site.  I was not ordered to do this, but volunteering would be a good course of action, whatever that meant.  The colonel said he would send in Peterson's Special Forces team and attach me to it if I was up to it.  Of all the SF teams I had worked with, Peterson's was the most experienced.  This was the legendary SF team, code named "Falcon" that ran as many missions in Laos in the early days of the war there as any other team in the history of the secret war in Laos.  Bradley said that there was a small landing site within ten miles of the crash site guarded by Hmong tribesmen and that it would be pretty safe to get to there.  I would have four T-28's out of Savannakhet for air support which meant they would be approximately an hour away from start up of engines to being overhead.  For us, the problem would be getting from the LS to the crash site. I could use my PARU team and we would be supplied some Hmong soldiers when I got to the landing site.  Up to this point he had not said who it was that had gotten shot down.  When he did, I was surprised at the names.  I knew both the pilot and the copilot. 

The pilot was Joe Cheney and the copilot was Charlie Herrick.  I knew of the loadmaster, but had never met him.  His name was Gene Debruin.  Col. Bradley said that there were others on board the aircraft serving as assistant loadmasters, but the number and nationality was unknown at the present time.  As far as he knew, it could be two, three, or four other persons involved.  What was needed to find is out what happened to the aircrew, how many there really were and were there any survivors.

C-46 at LS20A, Long Trieng

Because I knew these guys, my very first inclination was to say, "lets do it."  My second inclination, more thoughtful than my first said, "Why would I want to do this?"  This was a dangerous adventure at best.  We would be operating in Pathet Lao territory with only a few places held by the Hmongs.  He handed me a map and pointed to where the crash site was supposed to be.  He pointed out the presumed locations of Gen Van Pao's troops.   At least, that is where they were the last time they got information on them. He advised me that he had already briefed Peterson and that his team would meet my team back at Wattay. Then it was back to Wattay airport in Vientiane where my team was waiting for me.  My team was helping to refuel the chopper we had come in on and there were two Air America chopper crews standing around. I briefed Akkrat (my Thai sergeant and over the other team members) on what we were about to do.  I told him to prepare some Thai rations, more ammo, grenades, and be prepared to leave within a couple of hours. I told him to prepare for a two day mission close to the HCM trail.  He would brief his team later after the refueling was complete.    Because of his name, I usually called him "Rat Man."  One of the pilots came over and said they would be the main transport to the landing site within a few miles of the supposed crash site. I asked about the other AA crew and he said they were going to pick up some equipment to help us in our endeavor and they would be our backup in case of trouble.  While I was waiting for the SF team, I had one of my more lucid moments.  Here we are, soldiers who don't exist, going into a dangerous area looking for Americans who don't exist in a plane that doesn't exist in a country we weren't in.  How could we fail!  Nothing was real here!

Shortly, another vehicle pulled up and four heavily armed Americans got out wearing foreign uniforms.  I recognized Lt. Peterson as I had worked with him several times before.  He would be the 1-0 on the mission and we would be under his command on this mission.  He decided that we would wait until late evening and make a run at the Hmong village near the LS we were going to. The Enemy would think it was a food run and probably not pay much attention to us.  Extra cans of gas were loaded into the second chopper in case we needed it.  The second chopper  would to go to LS 383 and await our call.  LS 383 was just about 20 minutes flying time to where we were going.

The flight to our destination was uneventful.  No ground fire at all that we could tell.  We landed a few hundred yards from the Hmong village of Ban Wat and were met by a Hmong officer.  He said he could supply a few men to go with us who knew the area and would be of great help in reaching the crash site.  I radioed Vientiane and advised them that we were on the ground and proceeding with the operation. It was decided by the lieutenant  that we had better go now and get as close to the crash site as we could before daylight.  The Hmongs took the lead and we just followed them at intervals of about 5 yards.  We did the standard Special Forces combat march thing, ten minutes of movement and ten minutes of stop and listen.  I never worked with an experienced SF team that didn't do it this way.  Of course, it started raining but that was not a bad thing as the rain would muffle our steps and wash away our footprints.  After about a four hour hump, we were stopped by the Hmongs who told us, through Akkrat, that this was the line that divided what was controlled by General Van Pao's army and the Pathet Lao.  From now on we were in Pathet Lao territory.  We pressed on for another hour.  The SF guys decided this was far enough to go for the night.  We would stop and set up a RON (remain overnight) in which Lt. Peterson then set up a defensive perimeter and he sent some Hmongs on ahead as a sort of trail watch system. One of my Thais would watch the trail we had just come down.  Now I called a RON ( SF acronym) a "hide."  It means that you find a a place off the trail you are traveling that is well concealed and easily defensible.  Peterson had his team set up some claymore mines around the perimeter just in case trouble came our way.  Peterson actually taught me a lot during this mission in particular, especially about this RON thing. 

Border Patrol Police: Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) Older Shoulder Tab
PARU Shoulder Tab

We began to talk to the Hmongs through one of the Thais and the told us that they had people who had seen the crash site but had not been able to get close enough to determine if there were survivors or not.  There were just too many Pathet Lao in the area.   Only two captives had been reported in the area and had been seen in the adjacent hamlet.  One was Caucasian  and one was either Thai or Laotian.  Besides that, they were being moved towards the east and the HCM trail.   The lieutenant nixed any idea of a rescue as we just did not have the personnel to be successful.  What he was really saying was that he didn't think his four man team and our five man team was enough to catch up with and overcome a force moving captives daily. Our job was to find out who was alive and who was dead and we couldn't be sure the two mentioned above were even part of the aircrew of the downed C-46.  After about 30 minutes of chatting with the Hmongs, some of us tried to get some sleep while we could.  The rain continued throughout the night.  We got in about two hours sleep each over the next four hours.

At dawn the lieutenant called me over and told me that he had given this project some serious thought.  He felt it was better to split up the force.  He wanted me and my team to follow some Hmong guides and go to a place that could support helicopter landings.  It would be in General Vang Pao's control area, but barely.  He would take his guys and a few Hmongs with him and try to get to the crash site.  In case of trouble, he would radio me and make a run for the site.  I was to call for extraction and air cover if needed immediately after he had contacted me.  Two Hmongs were pointed out by him and they then led us away from our location.  Peterson and his team disappeared into the jungle. 

It was a good half day hump to the proposed landing site (LS).  I looked at my map but could not find any indication that this was a known LS.  I later found out there were a lot of CIA landing sites not marked on any maps and known only to a few people.  This was one of those.    The landing site was about 1500 feet long and by the tracks in the mud, Helio Couriers and Porters had been coming in here on a regular basis.  It had about a 15 to 20 degree slope.  It was obvious that the fixed wings had been landing up hill and taking off downhill.  It was certainly adequate for H-34 and Bell 204 helicopters.   By this time the rain had stopped and the skies has cleared to some extent.  All that was left to do was wait.

I contacted Vientiane and let them know the situation and what the lieutenant had told me to do.  This was now September 6, a full day after the aircraft was shot down. It was just after dark when the radio came to life and the SF radioman shouted out my call sign over the air.  "Navigator, we've gone hot.  Could not get to crash site.  Made contact with enemy force of unknown size.  Two Hmongs are dead and one wounded.  On our way to you.  Eight hours out.  Over."   I rogered his transmission and asked what they needed me to do, but there was no response.  I then contacted Vientiane and advised them of the situation by coded CW message.  I advised them that they needed to have the extraction helicopters and aircraft in the air in 7 hours.  They came back about 30 minutes later and asked me where I was.  My exact words were, "I have no idea. I am at a LS not marked on my map but approximately 25 kilometers west of  LS363.  On the map I am approximately 18 degrees 35 minutes north by 104 degrees 18 minutes east.  Over."   They came back a little later and said they knew where I was and would launch the extraction aircraft at 0600.  Again, now it was time to wait for the SF team to get back in touch with me.  And the wait was not long.

The radio once again came to life and the radioman said that they were in contact with a sizable enemy force but it wasn't as sizable as it had be an hour ago.  I think you can get his meaning.  He asked if I was in a position to see the valley below and I rogered that I was.  He said they would fire a pen flare and I was to let them know which direction they needed to go to get to our location.  I again rogered the transmission.  A few seconds later I saw the flare and looked at my compass and gave them a heading to our location.  The radioman rogered the transmission and again the radio went silent.  From where I saw the flare, they were a good six kilometers from my location and in heavy jungle.

I need to make a note here that I should have made earlier.  During this time in Laos (and as far as I know the way it was even later) three types of distance measurements were used in Laos.  The standard measure was kilometers and that is what the military on the ground used.  And the indigenous people used kilometers.  However, there were civilian contractors and operatives (CIA, USAID) who tended to still use regular miles for measurement purposes.   The USAF and Navy used nautical miles with a nautical mile slightly longer than a mile, with a mile longer than a kilometer.  Some of the maps I carried were in miles, some in kilometers, none in nautical miles.  One NM equals 1.85200 km or 1.15 miles.  When making computations, I had to convert one to the other.   An easy task with the EB-6 flight computer but a little more time consuming with a pencil and paper.  So, in this case I had a CIA  map in in statute miles and I had my EB-6.  I made mental notes and then converted all the numbers into kilometers for the SF team and then back to nautical miles for the aircrews.

About an hour later we could hear weapons going off, both 9MM sub-machine gun fire, BAR  and AK-47. There was a lot of gunfire in valley.  It was distant, but very distinctive coming out of the valley below.  I had to assume that the SOG team would come up the same trail we used so the Paru's put themselves in position to have some clear firing zones down the trail if needed.   My guys were armed with AK-47's and I was carrying my Swedish K sub-machine gun. The gunfire was intermittent and seemed to lessen as time went on.  I again radioed Vientiane and advised them of the situation.  I asked if they could have the choppers overhead  by daylight.   The rogered that they could.

A little later the 1-1 radioman called again and said that they were still in contact with a sizable force.  Also, he advised me that some had gone around them....maybe three or four, he wasn't sure, but thought that was how many there were and they would probably try to cut the SOG team off before they could get to the LS.  He told me that the 1-0 had said to tell me to be on the lookout and do what we could.  I rogered the transmission and called my Thais over to talk to them.  I briefed them on what I had just been told.  I told them that I had seen a trail somewhat parallel to ours that met this trail in a clearing about 1000 yards below.  I said we need to go to that site and hold it if we could.  We made a mad dash down the mountain and arrived at the clearing about 20 to 30 minutes later.  I hoped that I had made the correct calculations on what I thought was going to happen.

About 45 minutes later I heard noises on the parallel trail.  I radioed Falcon and asked if they were on the mountain yet.  The radioman said they had just got to the base of the mountain.  I told him I thought we were going to have company.  About then, one after another, what I thought to be Pathet Lao troops walked into the clearing.  First one, then two, then a total of six in all.   Per earlier instructions, my Thais waited until we were pretty sure this was all of them and then Akkrat and his men opened fire.  That is when all hell broke lose.

I figure that every one of the Thais fired at least ten rounds and maybe twenty in one case.  It lasted all of about 15 seconds and all six enemy soldiers went down. However, they did get off some rounds and narrowly missed hitting Akkrat.  Just about the time the firing subsided in the clearing,  I caught some movement to my right and when I was able to focus on them in the dark, it was another two enemy soldiers about fire on Akkrat.  I swung and around fired about ten or so rounds from my Swedish K in their direction.    Akkrat saw them about the same time I did and he turned and fired on them as well.  It must have caught them by surprise as they probably thought that Akkrat and his men were all of there was.   They all went down in a hail of bullets.  But that wasn't the end of it.  Another PL burst into the clearing and was almost on top of Akkrat when I dropped him in his tracks.  All three were able to get off a few rounds but they hit nothing but the jungle.  We waited to see if there were any more, but it didn't appear there were.  Akkrat sent one of his men down to finish off all the wounded which he did.  Remember, this is war and a war that wasn't.  There could be no witnesses.  It was just the way it was.  There could be no one left to tell how many of us there were or our unit makeup.  Akkrat signaled me to come down and look at the carnage.  He rolled one of the soldiers over and was I surprised.  These were not Pathet Lao soldiers.  They were NVA regulars.  I was surprised because I had no idea they were this far west or south.  I told Akkrat to reset his men and we would wait to see what happened next.

I then sent another coded message to Vientiane and told them that our force had run into regular NVA troops, not PL troops. They radioed back that they would get back with me.  About that time we saw someone coming up the main trail.  It was Team Falcon and a few Hmongs.  When Peterson stepped into the clearing and saw the dead NVA laying there, he too was surprised.  He said, "No wonder they kept coming at us earlier this morning.  These guys are "hard core NVA regulars."  Peterson acted like he was surprised that they were regular NVA, but I don't think he really was.

We made it back up to the LS and waited for daybreak.  Peterson sent a couple of Hmongs down the trail to watch for enemy troops headed our way, but none ever showed up.  Eventually, the Hmongs came back up the trail and said it didn't appear that any other NVA were on the mountain.  It was now just getting to be daybreak and about 20 minutes later we heard the first chopper as it approached the LS.  As the helicopters began to make their approach, Peterson sent the Hmongs back where they came from.   The first chopper  landed and the SOG team boarded it and took off.  The second chopper landed and the pilot said I needed to talk to Vientiane.  The pilot handed me his headset and I heard Bradley's voice on the other end.  He asked me if I was sure those were NVA.  I said yes I was.  He then asked me if I still had some smoke with me.  I looked at my PARUS and they had one canister each plus the one I had.  That made four.  I told Bradley that is what I had available.  He then said that we needed to make a pass down through the valley and drop smoke where we thought the NVA were.  He would provide some close air support to drop ordinance on the sites I marked.

I asked Bradley how I was going to know exactly where these folks were.  He said and I quote: "Fly down the damn valley and when the shoot at your chopper drop smoke on them."  Well, hell, why didn't I think of that!  Just get shot at so we would know where they were.  He told me that he would have air assets overhead in 30 minutes.  When they contacted me, we were to take off and fly down the valley and draw fire.  I rogered the transmission and signed off.  I asked the pilots if they were aware of what we were about to do.  They said they had a feeling this was the plan.  The pilot told me that we would fly low and fast and when we encountered fire, we would drop the smoke and get the hell out of the valley.....if we were still in one piece that is.

The next voice I heard over the UHF set was a Laotian I knew very well.  He was a major (I think) at this time and he was an excellent pilot and leader.  His name was Thau Ma. He eventually became a general of the Laotian Air Force and attempted a least two coups against the Laotian government before he was finally killed in 1973.  His first words to me were, "Navigator, this is Blue Leader with three friends.  Waiting for your run.  Over."  I rogered his transmission and told him we were starting up and would be airborne shortly.  I asked him his location and he told me he was at my 8 o'clock position at 5000 feet.  I finally saw his flight as we were getting airborne.  The pilot said he would go around the mountain and come in from the north and make the run south.  He told me make as small a target as we could.  I collected the four other smoke canisters and got ready.  I decided not to sit in the door but behind it as that would make at least some protection against ground fire.  We made it around the mountain and then took off down the valley.  About a mile into the run we began to see tracers from the east side of the valley.  The pilot make a turn slightly to the east and  then banked back to the west and said, "Drop them now, this is a close as we are going to get."  I pulled the pins and  threw all four out the door, one right after another.  I then got on the radio and told Thau Ma that the enemy was firing at us from about 800 meters east of the smoke.  The helicopter pilot then made a sharp turn to the west and began to climb for altitude.  Just as we cleared the mountain I saw the first T-28 make a run down the valley.  A lot of fire was coming up at him and it wasn't all small arms.  I saw the explosions from his bomb drop and then he went out of view as we went beyond the mountain.

Well, we had gotten away with that somehow.  There were a few holes in the chopper but I thought we must have been high enough that small arms didn't do too much damage.  Wrong!  Just as I had that thought, I heard a loud squeal and smoke started filling the chopper's cabin.  I heard the pilot say some curse words and then he yelled back to get ready for a hard landing.  We flew for about another three or four kilometers as we lost altitude.  The pilot tried to find a clearing and settled on one that wasn't quite big enough for the chopper.  He pulled the chopper up at a steep angle just above the trees and we went straight down and hit the ground.  The blades hit the trees on either side of the chopper and flew into small pieces of shrapnel flying off into the trees. Just as we all got out of the chopper it caught fire.  My experience here is that where there is fire and smoke, soon there will be enemy soldiers if we happen to be in their territory.  I told the pilots to head down the mountain led by one my team members.  Akkrat, the two other PARU and myself, would follow them at a distance to make sure no one caught up to them.  The pilot had said that he had issued a "Mayday" call and gave Vientiane our approximate position.  I had salvaged our radios so we would at least be able to talk to any aircraft in the area. 

As it turned out, and, as fortune smiled on us, we had crashed in an area held by the Hmongs of General Vang Pao.  It wasn't long until they made contact with us and told us they would meet us at the base of the mountain.  After we met with them, they led us to an LS.  A couple of hours later we were on our way back to Vientiane.  I had nothing but praise for the Air America crew.  How we managed to get back in one piece although our transport was trashed was a miracle and a great feat of flying.  I also have nothing but praise for Team Falcon.  They were truly professional soldiers and never showed fear in the face of extreme danger.  I will always remember those guys. and finally, my PARU's.  These guys were outstanding and absolutely fearless.  The all assumed they were going to die in this war, so why fear death.  It was coming to them anyway.  We did lose some of them later, but for now, we were all okay and heading back to our respective bases.