Right after our incursion into Cambodia, we conducted a good number of Hunter-Killer missions along the Cambodian border. A Hunter-Killer mission consists of a scout flying around on the deck (near the ground) looking for trouble, and when he finds it, the Cobra up above that’s been watching over the scout, rolls in hot, dropping rockets, grenades, and hopefully a few thousand rounds of 30 cal minigun bullets when the guns aren’t jammed (happened way too often). A Hunter-Killer team is also called a Pink-Team, white for the scout and red for the cobra, thus pink.
However, because of this thick, slowly rising fog covering our area to the north, most of our mornings were spent sleeping on our helmets waiting for this fog/clouds to lift. I’m not sure, but I think it was Tom White, a scout pilot, who took off one morning flying through the corridor between the trees and the clouds and discovered that, yes, there was enough room to fit some choppers in there, and that the corridor continued on for miles.
Shortly after that, Tom White, David Tela, Morgan Miller, and myself went to see Major Rafferty proposing a new kind of mission. We often knew the areas with signs of activity; but by the time we got there, we hardly found any bad guys; just signs they’d been there. We also knew that when the fog was thick and low, Charlie felt pretty darn safe because we were grounded. Discovering this corridor suddenly gave us the advantage. If we could find these areas of interest again, using dead reckoning (a compass heading) and a few landmarks, we’d definitely surprise them, especially since they knew that it was against SOP (Standing Operating Procedure) for us to fly in these conditions. You can’t sneak up on an enemy with a helicopter; they hear you coming from at least a mile away, and a cobra makes one hell of a sound, referred to by the enemy as “the sound of death.”
Major Rafferty liked the idea. He was a maverick compared to most of our previous troop commanders, and I think just breaking the rules appealed to him. When I told him, “They’re going to know we’re there, but they’re never going to believe we’re right there in their laps,” he drew on his pipe and his eyes lit up. He gave us the okay.
The very next day started our first experiment. White knew of an area, and he and Tela had checked it out, set up a route to follow, and returned home to show Miller and myself. The next morning, from our outpost (I don’t recall the name of any place where we parked our birds other than our home base), White took off to make sure the corridor was wide and tall enough. He came back, gave us a thumbs up, and we all took off, Tela taking the lead, I stayed back as his wingman. Since there was very little room for maneuvering or mistakes, I stayed way, way back, just as Tela stayed back from White, our scout. Both White and Tela’s front seat (co-pilot) went over the maps, calling off check points and making slight course corrections. About a half a mile out, we came up hot (turned our weapon systems on). Tela began swinging wide to the right, and I followed, staying even further right of him. The moment White came over the intended target, he squealed out, “We’ve got people,” and a yellow smoke grenade flew out onto the target. Tela rolled in firing his brand new 20 mm cannon. They were so new the aircraft commanders had to hang onto the canopy doors to keep them from opening due to the vibrations; vibrations that also popped a handful of rivets we’d soon find out.
Tela broke right off of the target and I followed in with three pair of rockets. As we circled right, wide right, White sped through the area again and counted three bodies.
“Three-eight, your rockets got em,” White radioed.
Tela (Silver Spur 38) radioed back, “I don’t have rockets.”
We got back home and Rafferty was all bubbles and smiles. He shook our hands, and two weeks later David Tela was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Given the weather situation, this had been a very dangerous mission. We also determined that two cobras under the clouds made the mission even more dangerous, so any subsequent Road Runners would consist of a single Hunter-Killer team.
The second and last time (this unique weather condition subsequently disappeared) we performed a Road-Runner Mission came about three or four days after the first.
Previous to that mission, Bill Smith had been my scout and Morgan Miller my co-pilot. Smith buzzed around this wooded section near the Cambodian border where the border went east for a bit before heading north again. What Bill found was too darn big to be right there that close to the border (less than 500 meters), and for months afterward we speculated that they had thought they were in Cambodia, but had goofed.
Smith got really excited over his find: a class room, fresh bunkers, cooking area, and paths, lots of paths. I told him not to spend too much time there, just to show us (up in the cobra) the boundaries, how wide and how long, as I climbed to altitude in search of more landmarks. Morgan marked the spot on the map; I got a good look around at the terrain and put the site into my memory (it’s still there today, as if it was yesterday). I gave Bill a heading to follow back and called the people in charge of that area, requesting a free fire zone for early the next day. The heading I gave Bill turned out to be perfect as it took him directly over an abandoned firebase. There were two or three more landmarks that I can’t recall, but we got the route down: it was a good 10 minutes long, which, when flying between the trees and the clouds with only a couple of feet to spare, was one heck of a long time. On the way up, should we get into the fog and have to climb out of it, the mission would be over.
The next day, Bill had a day off. I remember our scout clearly, just don’t remember his name (though I think it was Paul Chalet). I also remember not filling him in as well as I could have; Morgan and I were very excited and pumped up, and the poor scout had no idea that if we found activity, it was probably an entire company, or larger.
With Morgan Miller my co-pilot, and our scout giving us the thumbs up, we took off together heading north, though Morgan and I hung south of the fog bank while the scout checked everything out. He’d never even heard of a Road Runner Mission, but was up for the idea. He called to us that the corridor was open and I gave him the heading and the first check point (landmark). We stayed back about fifty meters and let the scout lead the way; Morgan corrected his heading according to where we were when we passed over the checkpoints.
Some things happened only yesterday: the clouds dipped into our rotor blades as we sped along at 60 knots. The tips of the trees tickled our skids. Once in a while a little puff of a cloud would reach down and try to stall us, but we burst through sending wisps of fog into infinity. This magic corridor carried us between heaven and hell, life and death, and yet we felt so alive, so amazingly alive as if that day were both our first and last day of existence.
When we passed our final checkpoint, I called to the scout telling him that our target was just up ahead about two clicks (two kilometers) and that when he left the tree line and hit the elephant grass that he’d passed the site, and to turn around and head back into the tree line to the east and south. I began a large swing to the right knowing that the far tree line up ahead was in Cambodia, my northern most boundary, where I could skim on my swing back to the left. The scout broke over the tree line bordering the north end of our target while I came around half way through my wide left turn to keep him covered, and pointing into the target area, just a few feet away from the Cambodian border to the north. As the scout came onto the tree line, he called over the radio, quite excitedly, “We’ve got two officers, in full dress uniform out my right door,” and made a very sharp turn to the left (to get the hell out of the area). This sharp turn caused his smoke grenade to arch up (since the scout was turned over on its side). Morgan laid his mini-gun on target, but I had been ready: our rotor blades sliced through the elephant grass as I whipped the gunship around placing her nose on the target; Morgan found his guns suddenly aimed into the dirt and as he raised them, refocusing on target, but again he didn’t have time to get off a shot as two pair, then four, then six headed in on target. The first two raced the pink smoke grenade to the ground, killing the two officers. As we continued inbound on target, I called to the scout to get up to altitude and wait for us; to stay clear of the clouds because we’d be coming up in just a few seconds.
As we bore down on the tree line, we were lined up perfectly: our nose pointed right up the length of the area and all we had to do was fire. Morgan to this day recalls our rockets slicing a path through this base camp. He watched the trees blow apart as we fired pair after pair directly into the trees creating deadly airbursts over their cooking area, bunkers, and even the classroom. We dumped our entire inside load of nineteen, 17-pound warheads through the center of our target area, and with the last pair exploding, I called to our scout, “We’re coming through the clouds,” popped the cyclic back and whooosh; suddenly we were in the clouds, silent, realizing that this was a first, as none of us were instrument qualified. I fastened my eyes on the artificial horizon and told Morgan, “Hey, tell me when we’re clear of the clouds.” It seemed like ages, though I know it was only seconds.
As we broke through, breathing regularly now, we climbed higher and higher for the second strike on target. It felt good to see our scout buzzing around to the west. He asked me what we were doing and I responded, “Watch.” As we reached 1500 feet, I pulled the nose over into a split S (a hard left turn while climbing that looks very close to an upside down roll), and as our dive progressed we saw that our target was marked: the red smoke from the grenade came up through the clouds on the northern end, and our trail up through the clouds marked the southern end. Now for the coup de grace: in the outer pods I carried seven pair of flechettes (a rocket filled with 2000 10-penny nails with fins that burst in the air, not unlike like a shot gun shell). We’d surprised them. No one expected us to be there in the first place, and now that we were above the clouds, they never guessed what was about to rain down on them.
Usually, when we broke from our rocket runs, the enemy, because of their beliefs (that one’s entire body had to be buried together with all its parts or he would be forced to search for his lost parts in the afterlife) rushed out and gathered up the dead before we could make another run. However, they surely felt pretty safe that we were not going to make another run from above the clouds. We’d seen them, running for cover, diving into the bushes; and I’m sure they saw us climb into that huge cloud. They probably felt pretty secure and safe as we dived at them, tossing pair after pair of flechettes along the very same path of destruction we’d caused seconds earlier. “Let’s go on home,” I called out to our scout.
The ride home was silent.
Sure, when the clouds cleared up later, our unit made a little insertion into the area, but we were a very small unit. Our ground troops found a little action there, but really never made it very far into the area. It was still a little too hot. We fired some more rockets in there, spent a pretty full day on target, and as we broke, the people in charge of the area, in response to our reports, said they’d make sure the area was covered by infantry the next day. Later that next day Major Rafferty received a report from those ground troops. They’d dug up 78 fresh graves.
The weather was never quite the same after that. The Road Runner Missions of Alpha Troop, 3/17th Air Cavalry ended after the second mission, in that late summer of 1970, in the Republic of South Vietnam.
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