How I Ran the War in Vietnam — Part Two

History

Nov 17

The next couple of weeks are pretty much a blur for me today. I remember meetings and presentations and communications with home-base and with the pilots, but nothing really stands out except, of course, for the Spec 4 who stopped by once in a while saying, “Sir? I’m going to the whorehouse if you wanna come along.” I finally had to tell him that I’d heard it was off-limits to officers.

“Sir, you’re a warrant officer. You’re like one of the men. Lots of pilots land here just to have a taste of our whorehouse. They tell me it’s the best one in Vietnam.”

So one day when I had a free afternoon, I went with him to the best little whorehouse in Vietnam. Along the way he explained to me how the generals all had their whores flown in from Japan. He described for me the whorehouse, how it was separated into a massage parlor on one side and tiny rooms on the other. The place also served drinks. The masseuses were actually trained in a variety of massage forms and techniques, but no happy endings. That’s when the real pros showed up and escorted you into their room.

I do remember talking to Three-Eight, Silver Spur Three-Eight, Dave Tela. He’s really the only person I remember communicating with by radio during my time away. We’d bonded early on, so I trusted him. The first time we spoke by radio, I told him that our pilots would be calling the shots. If they wanted to check out an area, that was up to them. They should play their hunches and do what they did best.

I also informed him that if they found something big, they might want to skim over it at first, get a tally on its size, an estimated number of bad guys, the direction they might be heading, etc, because HQ wanted to insert RVNs (the Republic of Vietnam regulars, pronounced “arvans”) and all this Vietnamization bulltwaddle.

I didn’t tell him that intel had discovered reinforcements from the north coming into our area from Cambodia. Our people were good. If there was troop movement on the ground, they’d find it, and they’d take it out if given the order.

It was always good to take “intel” with a grain of salt. We’d oftentimes been told what to look for and where to find it, and then never found a damn thing until we started looking elsewhere. So it was best to confirm the intel rather than accept it.

Now, as pilots, we knew that “Charlie” was listening to our radios, and since we had to transmit specifics that they’d hear, we developed this technique of frequency jumping. We’d pass a piece of the message, then jump to another frequency and pass the rest. Anyone listening in would catch just a morsel, which would be meaningless by itself.

How did we pass the frequencies to jump to? Like this: Tela would say, “Come up Jack Benny plus 12.” We all knew Jack Benny’s age: 39. So 12 + 39 meant we’d tune to 51. Then there was WOPA. WOPA stood for Warrant Office Protection Association. It was also the name of one of the dogs our unit had adopted, and he’d been on some 50 missions. So we took the number of his missions and added or subtracted a number to get a frequency we could pass some intel on and then jump to another to pass on the rest. This way Charlie never got the coordinates we were focused on.

After the missions, there was always the secure line between camps. At least we were told it was secure.

So for my first days there, it was just business as usual. We called these missions Charlie Juliets or Romeo Foxtrots; to those of you unfamiliar with the phonetic alphabet used by the military, those were CJs and RFs, meaning circle jerks and rat fucks. We weren’t allowed to cuss over the radios (it was a very clean war), though once in a while you would hear, “Holy fucking shit we’ve been hit!”

Now you have to know a little bit about Air Cav tactics.

The usual mission (Charlie Juliet) was to have a scout, or Loach (LOH: Light Observation Helicopter), buzz around treetop level looking for bad guys. Overhead was a single Cobra loaded to the teeth with rockets (four pods), 4,000 rounds of minigun ammo, and, I think, 250, 20 mm grenades that were fed into the turret mounted gun pod. The Aircraft commander fired the rockets, and the copilot, in the front seat handled the turret.

It was the job of the copilot (front seat in the Cobra) to keep his eye on the scout. The pilot (sometimes Aircraft Commander; it was a title of honor) flew the aircraft, watched the scout, kept an eye on the weather, the ceiling, watched for other choppers, and communicated with the scout and headquarters. And we also listened to some music on the radio.

Every scout had an observer armed with a 30 cal machine gun, and the bird itself was armed with a minigun (an electric machine gun that fired 4,000 rounds a minute — same as on the turret of the Cobra, only on the scout it was fixed). They also carried a number of grenades, mainly smoke grenades; colored smoke grenades, to toss on a target so the Cobra could roll in and give the bad guys the worst day of their lives.

The observer, called Oscar (that phonetic language again; Oscar for the letter O) would toss a smoke grenade as the scout sped out of the area (usually because the air was suddenly full of bullets) and the scout pilot would radio the Cobra saying something like, “Three Charlies just about 20 feet northwest of the smoke.”

This is an actual photograph of your author. He’s the aircraft commander in the Cobra on the right. I know this because of the date, the location, and that Cobra happens to be a heavy hog, meaning two full sized rocket pods on each side. I was the only one who could actually get that thing off the ground. In fact, when my platoon leader tried it the day I was off getting promoted, he came down hard and destroyed the skids.

So there you have it. That is a Hunter/Killer team, often referred to as a “Pink Team;” with the Scout being white and the Cobra being red; together they made “pink.”

This sort of mission was what the Air Cav did most of the time, though we did provide a lot of support to ground troops (quite often), escorted Dust-Off (medical evacuation choppers), and provided support for convoys.

Our unit had even been chosen to protect Nixon when he came to Vietnam, except, you’ll love this, our Cobras were not allowed to carry any ammo.

Nixon visiting our unit. This is pulled from a documentary.

That’s right. We were there for show.

Now that you’ve been brought up-to-date, and I’ve had time to thoroughly acquaint myself with the best little whorehouse in Vietnam, perhaps I should tell you about the discovery Dave Tela and his scout made one day.

Now over the preceding weeks they’d called in a few kills, messed up some random Charlies who were in the wrong place at the worst of possible wrong time, but Tela was on the radio one morning, right after a short presentation I’d given the Generals (that basically told them today we’ve got business as usual).

Dave told me they’d found something, and it was looking pretty big. He’d already told his scout to not let on that we were aware of anything. He called me while the scout was still buzzing about, only this time picking up speed, again, so as not to let on that he’d made a find.

You see, when a scout hovered over one spot, if there were bad guys, they knew they’d been discovered, and that’s when all the shooting started. If there were any big guns on the ground, that’s when they’d hunker down, all setup for the Cobra that would be barreling down on them in just seconds. The enemy referred to the noise a Cobra made diving as “the sound of death.”

Tela told me that he’d contact me with all the details when they got back to HQ via the secure line. And he’d inform his relief that they were to stay either north or south of their find, but look for movement either into or away from the area.

I met with my higher-up that afternoon, the smiling major, and asked him a pointed question: “Does the Air Force have a mole problem?”

I remember his response to this day. He gave me one of his smiles, raised his head, took off his hat and rubbed his brow, saying, “Ahhhh, so you’ve heard something.”

It seems that every B-52 airstrike, referred to as “Arc Light,” was known in advance by the enemy. In North Vietnam, we’d heard that they knew at least 8 hours in advance of when the strike would occur and exactly where it would occur. We’d called them in ourselves after a find, and when they showed up the very next day, poof—nobody home.

So I asked, if there was any way we could put them on alert, and then feed them the coordinates after they took off.

“So you’ve found something,” he said looking me straight in the eye.

“Maybe. A really strong ‘maybe.’ I want the same team to check them out at sunrise tomorrow.” The major knew why sunrise. The scouts could smell their breakfasts at about that time. The enemy would cook all night with covered fires, put them out about an hour before sunrise, but the scent of the food lingered in the air.

Our scouts were good. They looked for monkeys. If you found monkeys, Charlie wasn’t around. They watched flocks of birds take off, indicating movement under the canopy by humans. They could tell whether canopy was natural or rigged to camouflage something on the ground. They could tell if footprints were a day old or a week old. They were good.

The next day Tela reported back to me that they definitely had something big, and that the scout had found a newly built bridge over a wide creek, just this side of Cambodia.

It looked like they were headed south-east, and that tunnels or bunkers were being dug. His scout also thought they might have even found a few vehicles that had been covered in brush to camouflage them.

I informed the Major, and he told me to prepare a presentation for the generals in the next morning.

Now get this. Everyone has stage-fright to some degree, this is a given. It’s known that people fear public speaking more than death. I had always tackled the problem by diving right in and being unafraid to crack a few jokes. But I wasn’t there to joke with a front row filled with more stars than the heavens, and my legs started to shake and my voice cracked.

It must have been the excitement of coordinating a huge mission that could bag us a whole bunch of bad guys. So I turned toward my map, took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and dived in.

I pointed out the suspected areas, the location of the new bridge, where the vehicles might be hidden, and the tunnels or bunkers that were being built. I looked at my watch and said, “Right about now, this entire area is being hit by B-52s, with our people are standing by to first go in and pick off any survivors or those trying to flee the area. We’ve got Arvan troops to be inserted no more than a half hour after the pink teams have taken off. Scouts will find LZs (landing zones), and the Cobras will escort the troops and cover the insertion.

Then something happened that I never expected. The generals all looked at each other, nodded and smiled, and a couple of them stood and came over to pat me on the back, saying “Good work, Soldier. We can’t wait to hear the results.”

Those results were presented the next morning. I thought I was going to get a standing ovation: the numbers of Charlie we’d killed, the NVA (North Vietnamse Regulars) we’d killed and captured, and all the stuff that had been blown to hell; the death and destruction bought smiles and nods and knee slaps from all the brass in the front row.

Even my major’s smile warmed up to a more fatherly smile as he nodded every time we met or passed. They were ultra-happy with our combined efforts to win this unwinnable war.

Then one day the highest ranking RVN generals on the base came to see me in my office. I stood quickly to attention, but he put his hand up signaling me to relax. He told me how happy he was with our missions and that everyone was proud of our great successes. Then he removed his hat and relaxed, sitting on the edge of my desk (they must teach that pose in OCS, or maybe West Point gives “edge of desk sitting seminars” or something), and then he asked me if I could send some of our slicks (those were the Huey troop carriers) across the border to pick up a platoon of his troops.

I looked him straight in the eye and said something I’d always wanted to say to a general: “No fucking way.”

I told him I wasn’t about to become famous for creating an international incident or expanding the war in Vietnam. What I didn’t know was that Washington was actually planning to do just that, but that’s what they do in Washington.

Those decisions were not made by a simple warrant officer, acting as a liaison officer.

He smiled, put his cap back on, and left. He would come back two more times with the same request, and I would give him the same answer.

Over the last of my days there, our unit helped insert RVNS into that original area and its perimeter a number of times, while the pink teams chased the rest of the invading force back to Cambodia. Again, I did not know this at the time, but when Washington finally did order us to hit Cambodia, it was right where we had been staging these ops that our invasion would start, only with a much larger force, the 7th Cav leading the charge. Our tiny unit ran backup.

Suddenly it was time for me to leave. The brass all held a breakfast in my honor, and I got a lot of thank-yous and backslaps. The Spec 4 who had originally picked me up, given me a tour, and was always there to take me to the best little whore house in Vietnam, stood next to his jeep outside my quarters, waiting for me when I returned to get my bags. He’d already dropped off my replacement, so I went in and had a little talk with him.

I told him about the screw-up in communications and that he’d be running the war. I told him how the pilots knew what to do already and how they had taken command of the area we covered, and how well it went. I told him to keep it to himself, because it was working, and you don’t screw with something that is working.

Then I hopped on a chopper and flew home.

I celebrated a great reunion with the gun platoon (Cobra pilots), and I told them how the brass down there were so proud to have worked with us and how much they bathed in our success. It had been an experience, but it was good to be home, back with my pile of paperbacks, and Dave Tela to talk to.

A few days later, I don’t remember why, but I had to go see the CO about something. All I remember was that it was right after touching down putting the bird away. But as I walked through the screen door to his outer office, the Spec 4 jumped up from his desk and ran at me, putting his hands up, walking me quickly back outside.

He told me that I did not want to go into that office. He said that I was the main topic of conversation all morning.

It seems that my replacement had snitched; told them everything.

The Spec 4 wasn’t able to hear all that was said inside the CO’s office, but he was pretty sure that someone had suggested that I be taken out and shot.

He told me to just steer clear of the CO, and he’d get back to me when everyone had cooled off.

So I went back to our barracks and read a paperback. I avoided anywhere the CO might wind up.

Within a few days I got word that the hullabaloo had settled down; that letters of commendation were being received for our recent campaign, and even though it had been rumored that the CO wanted to court-martial my ass, I was to be decorated with a Bronze Star for meritorious service.

In fact, the CO got some kind of medal too, promoted, and was quickly kicked upstairs to a new and larger command.

That’s when we got Major Rafferty, the only CO we’d ever had who actually left the fighting to the soldiers with all the experience. When we approached him with an idea, he was all for it. And soon our unit was being called in for more support jobs and more responsibilities. Our reputation was getting around. That’s how we were chosen to back up the 7th Cav when the US invaded Cambodia.

We were good. When we got into a pissing contest, we came out on top. Lots of medals were being accumulated by our pilots, and one day I stood there with a hand full of gun pilots, Dave Tela at attention next to me, and we all got pinned with air medals. Dave and I got the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Rafferty pinned that Bronze Star on my chest, stood back, and saluted me.

Then came the icing on the cake. I got a week off to spend in Saigon at the best hotels eating the best foods and seeing the best doctors at the best hospital because I had caught something really grand at that best little whorehouse in Vietnam.

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