That day’s target was one of the MA targets west of the DMZ in Laos, along the river that ran through the DMZ. In the briefing room there was a large map with all of the DMZ targets and all of the MA targets in Laos. Maps of the target area that we carried to the field were just small sections of the larger maps, the theory being that if captured, the small map was useless to the enemy.
On the target map, there were a series of MA targets, MA-10 through MA-16 or 18. The smaller numbers, MA-10 and MA-11, were the first target areas directly west of the South Vietnamese border. Our MA target was a larger number and thus, farther into Laos, near an area where NVA fuel lines were reported to be under construction. The NVA needed fuel to move its trucks and men down the Ho Chi Minh Trail Complex and it was more efficient to have a pipeline, instead of individual trucks, moving the gasoline south.
As we looked at the map, we noticed a disturbing trend: there were more anti-aircraft weapons cropping up throughout the AO. The launch site staff was vigilant in warning the helicopter pilots and Covey about any new 37mm or 12.7mm sites in the AO. More than once, the Kingbee pilots would point out a location where they had come under fire from NVA gunners. Because of the increase in anti-aircraft batteries along the DMZ and MA targets, the Kingbee pilots said they would fly straight to the LZ along the nap-of-the-earth. There would be no auto-rotation, downward spiral insertions into the LZ today.
Fresh in our memories was the Nov. 30, 1968 incident where NVA anti-aircraft fire downed a Kingbee heading into Laos on an Eldest Son. That loss of seven Green Berets and an entire Kingbee crew of three men was still vivid in our minds. The briefing officers also warned us about reports of NVA sappers being in the area. Spike teams from Kontum had made contact with NVA sappers at least once in the last year.
Finally, it was time to saddle up. The lead Kingbee pilot, Captain Tuong, said he would carry the entire spike team on his H-34, as the weather conditions and height of the mountains allowed the old chopper enough lift to carry us. At the briefing we were told that Covey had found an LZ in a remote valley with no enemy activity. The hope was that the LZ’s remoteness meant less chance for the NVA to have watchers on the LZ or enemy trackers in the surrounding area.
As we boarded the chopper, I felt good about the men on ST Idaho: Lynne Black had joined Bubba Shore and me. Both were fearless but not reckless, smart and smart-mouthed. Phuoc was our point man, Hiep our interpreter and Tuan was our M-79 man. I had been on ST Idaho seven months and I was the senior American on the team. I still viewed myself as a green kid in-country and yet the wear and tear of running targets made me feel that I was much older than 22. I still wondered if I’d see my 23rd birthday, now 25 days away.
In our favor was the fact that we had one of the best-damned Kingbee pilots in the 219th Vietnamese Air Force, Captain Tuong. His nerves of steel and amazing flying skills made him one of the most respected Kingbee pilots in the C&C project. I was optimistic about the chances to have a good mission, especially if Covey had found a remote LZ. As we headed west, flying parallel with the DMZ river, Captain Tuong followed the briefing officer’s suggested route of approach. Shortly before we crossed the border into Laos, the door gunner test fired his ancient .30 caliber air-cooled machine gun. It misfired several times before a round finally exploded from the barrel. Those old machine guns misfired as often as they fired. I always wondered why they didn’t replace them with a 7.62mm M-60 or a .50 caliber machine gun.
Tuong started to dip the H-34 down, losing altitude before easing into a graceful right turn which brought us into a canyon between two mountains. The Kingbee felt strong as it climbed the steepening grade. I was sitting in the doorway, facing east. As we continued the climb up the canyon, I saw a small native shack carved into the side of the mountain with one or two people inside of it. They appeared to be indigenous to the area. No NVA uniforms. No obvious radios, antennae or weapons. They appeared to be just as surprised to see us, as we were to see them.
Seconds later, Captain Tuong flared the Kingbee onto the LZ, a small knoll covered with elephant grass. I resisted the first urge to jump out of the Kingbee when I thought we had reached the ground and delayed a few moments. When I felt the right wheel touch the ground and could see the dark soil, I jumped out.
ST Idaho was on the ground. The insertion, other than scaring a few locals, was as quick as the slam-bam inserts Bubba and I had enjoyed a month ago in Cambodia. The damned elephant grass was thicker and taller than it had appeared from the air. It was at least 10 feet tall. Instead of quickly moving off of the LZ, we paused right there. I asked Black if he thought the locals would help the NVA. He asked me if I was nuts. The locals had no choice. The real question was: could we get off the LZ and far enough away from it to lose any NVA trackers or sappers? Another thing that bothered me about the LZ was the fact that the grassy knoll we were on was much farther from the top of the mountain than I had imagined during the briefing. We had to get to high ground before dark; our team safety was endangered. After a few minutes we started to move east off of the LZ toward the thick, triple canopy jungle. I hated elephant grass. Moving through it took a lot of energy and the blades of grass always irritated my eyes. When moving in it, our team made a lot of noise, noise that hindered our efforts to move with stealth which was critical to our survival in the jungle.
I radioed Spider and asked him if he could keep the assets on stand-by beyond the normal 10-minute period of time. I told him there was no choice because we had flown past a small, inhabited hootch that was built into the side of the mountain. Spider was surprised by that news. He and the Covey pilot hadn’t seen it earlier. While I finished the commo check with Spider, Black continued to move the team east, following Phuoc. Tuan and I brought up the rear. It seemed to take forever to move through the elephant grass. I began to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. This elephant grass reminded me of Echo Four two months earlier and it was really slowing us down. Now, as I looked skyward, the gray day seemed to be taking on a stormy appearance. I had packed an extra sweater in the rucksack, but no extra rain gear. Spider radioed to ask if he could release the assets. I clicked the handset signaling affirmative, release them.
Although we were still in the elephant grass, we were moving closer to the triple-canopy jungle that appeared to be taller than the Empire State Building. Then Phuoc opened fire on full automatic. There were one or two possible enemy shots fired. From my location at the rear of the formation, I might as well have been on Broadway because I couldn’t see Phuoc, Black, Hiep or Bubba. I quickly radioed Spider and told him we had light contact with the enemy and requested an extraction.
“Tilt, I released the assets,” Spider said. I knew he was joking.
“Thank God the young, desk jockey lieutenant wasn’t flying Covey today,” I said to myself. There was no more gunfire as the remainder of the team moved back towards me. As I waited, I felt a leech inside my pant leg. It was too near to my private parts for comfort. To hell with the NVA, the clouds, rain and cold! If that leech bit me…! I shook my right leg violently and reached down into my pants. It had to be an NVA leech; it was still moving up my inner thigh. I flicked it down into the bottom of my pant leg, pulled my fatigues out of my boot and shook that communist out. I then stomped him into the ground for several, long moments.
“This damned elephant grass,” cursed Black. “They could have heard us coming from Hanoi!” With Hiep interpreting, Phuoc said he had heard someone in the jungle, as he was about to emerge from the elephant grass on an eastern azimuth. He opened fire on them and they returned fire with one or two shots. Phuoc said the weapons weren’t AK-47s. As we spoke in muffled tones, we heard movement to the southeast of our position. They were far enough away that we couldn’t see them, yet they were down hill from us and close enough that I threw one frag grenade in their direction. There was no response.
The elephant grass seemed taller and more vexing than ever; every time we moved we made too much noise. As we all peered to the southeast, wondering what was going on out there, we heard movement to our northeast. Again, it wasn’t a lot of movement, but someone was trying to flank us. Shore loosened his throwing arm and indicated he wanted to throw an M-26 toward the northeast. He quietly removed the pin and let the spoon fly, counted to two and threw the frag toward the noise. By holding it an extra two seconds and throwing it in an exaggerated arc, the M-26 exploded in the air, increasing the shrapnel’s lethality, hopefully right over the enemy’s head. We were all sweating. We heard no aircraft sounds, but now we heard movement to the southeast.
Spider called me on the radio. There was a certain edge to his voice when he said it was imperative that we not move to the northeast.
“I repeat, negative on moving team to northeast!” He demanded that I confirm receiving that message.
“Affirmative. Do not move team to northeast!” I was surprised by the urgency in his voice. I passed the word to Black. Northeast seemed to be the path of least resistance and the last chance to get on with the mission. Spider’s terse message and the sounds to the northeast negated this. He said he had an intelligence report that backed up his order to us that we not go to the northeast.
We now switched into survival mode. I was curious as to what sort of intel report could make him so certain. I stopped pondering the hypothetical and returned to our tactical situation on the ground.
Due to the elephant grass, both in terms of the noise we were making and how it muffled other sounds, we couldn’t tell exactly how many NVA were moving or even if they were NVA. Were they the sappers we had heard about during the briefing? If they were, they’d have to move through the same stinking elephant grass we were stuck in.
Some earlier intelligence reports said the sappers wore only a loincloth, an ammo vest and carried a new version of the AK-47 with the folding metal stock, which some folks called an AK-50. They had to carry a knife, but where? The sounds to the northeast ended my theoretical sapper questions. Black threw a hand grenade toward the noise to our southeast.
Black said, “I smell smoke. Either our hand grenades or the NVA have started fires.”
“Things are really heating up on the LZ, literally,” I radioed Spider. I told him we were surrounded and had fires on two sides of our perimeter. Due to the location of the knoll in the canyon, with mountains rising on the east and west of it, using fixed-wing air support was ruled out immediately. Working helicopter gun runs would also be difficult due to the terrain and where the enemy was located. Within minutes, we could all smell the smoke. The popping noises grew in number and volume. Black went to the western edge of our perimeter looking for a way out. If we tried to escape down that route, the elephant grass-covered terrain would leave us in a deep hole. There were no trees nearby to climb for improved visual reconnoitering.
Now, there was no noise discipline. Black was pushing the elephant grass down. I tried going north, but the elephant grass remained thick and high. The NVA moved to our north. We were surrounded on three sides. Since we were on the highest ground, we attempted to form a perimeter in the elephant grass by knocking it down – which was no easy task. Bubba and I whacked away at the thick stalks of the elephant grass with machete-type hand tools; Black jumped into it, using his body weight and the weight of his gear to flatten it. Black and I figured that if we were able to get enough elephant grass knocked down, we would be able to see any NVA emerging from it into our perimeter.
Spider radioed to say the Kingbees were about two minutes out from the LZ. Then he asked me how the firefight was going because he could hear all of the popping noise in the background and assumed it was enemy gunfire. I told him that if the Kingbees didn’t get there ASAP, ST Idaho would be engaged in fighting fires as well as firefights.
The wind was blowing up the canyon from the south. That fire was gaining strength as more smoke wafted up the hill and through our perimeter. The pops from the burning elephant grass were so loud that some of them sounded like single shot gunfire.
“Kingbee come soon?” Hiep asked. I told him Captain Tuong was approximately one minute away.
“They’re starting more fires,” Bubba said. By now, the noise from the fire forced us to raise our voices when talking to each other. The smoke was getting thicker. I began to sweat. We threw a few more hand grenades down the hill to force the NVA to keep their heads down. The noise from both fires was so loud we would not have been able to hear the NVA had they launched an attack. At this point, the most likely avenue of attack would be the knoll ridgeline from the east to our LZ. Bubba said he had a claymore mine strung out there. Black reported that the fire was sweeping through the elephant grass on our western flank, on the steep slope below our LZ which led down to the canyon.
The southern fire’s intensity grew by the second and continued to move up the slope toward us and around to the east. There was a fire or fires to the north and northeast, but they weren’t heading toward ST Idaho with the speed of the southern flames. Black and Shore took out several one-pound bars of C-4 plastic explosive, cut them in half and primed them with blasting caps. With the fire advancing so quickly up the southern side of the hill, they got as close as possible, placed the C-4 at the fire’s edge and set it off. The theory was that the C-4 would temporarily blow the flames back down the mountain. By now the smoke was so thick, I had my green cravat over my face with the top pulled over my nose. Burning embers from the south kicked up and flew over our small, jagged perimeter, dumping ashes, soot and small, burning sparks on the elephant grass and us. Only Hiep and Tuan wore hats. Several of us soaked our hair.
The heat from the fires became so intense that Black and Shore got heat blisters the second time they attempted to stop the flames’ charge toward us. All of us were flicking ashes or small sparks off of our clothing and any exposed skin or hair. Black told me that the NVA weren’t far behind the flames. Tuan had first reported seeing images a short distance behind the flames to the south and southeast. Black had observed the same images, unsure as to whether the images were real or some phenomenon produced by the flames and the rising heat waves. Then Bubba reported seeing the same thing, noting that it was odd that the NVA soldiers were not holding their AK-47s in a firing position, but rather in a relaxed, almost casual way. Black and Phuoc placed a few more claymores on the slope heading south and southeast.
When Spider said the Kingbee was 30 seconds out, I signaled Tuan, Black, Phuoc and Shore to blow their claymores. Finally we could hear the Kingbee. Because we had the most enemy activity to our south and southeast, I told Spider to bring Captain Tuong’s Kingbee in from the north, which made for a radically, steep descent into the mountainous canyon area. The smoke was stifling, choking us while sending up a huge plume of black and gray smoke. Black pointed out that the fires had burnt so long in the southeast, that the NVA might use that burnt area as a line of attack against us. Black, Shore, Tuan and I fired a volley of M-79 high explosive rounds toward the south and southeast. I turned my attention to the Kingbee, and Black and Bubba set off two more C-4 charges in an effort to keep the flames at bay. The explosions slowed the flames and any NVA movement behind them. Black, Bubba and Tuan fired a few more M-79 rounds to the south, arching them as though they were small mortars.
Captain Tuong knew exactly where we were, as he brought the H-34 down the canyon toward us. The smoke was thick, however, and made it difficult for him to see our LZ. It felt as though we were trapped in some sort of Twilight Zone episode, with the smoke and fire rushing up the mountain, enemy soldiers firing at us, and salvation within sight, but out of reach. When the old Sikorsky was about 75 feet from our LZ and flaring toward us, it appeared to me that the rotor blades were moving in slow motion. For a brief moment, I thought the Kingbee was going to pull out of the landing pattern due to the smoke that covered the LZ. My heart stopped. If he left, we would die.
Seconds became hours. My vision was clearer than ever and I was acutely aware of the smoke, fire, popping sounds and enemy gunfire. I stood on the western edge of the perimeter, waving a colored panel skyward trying to catch the pilot’s eye. The H-34 continued its slow motion descent. All I saw was the bottom of the chopper, with the front struts sticking out to the right and left coming down like a giant praying mantis. The rotor wash from the Kingbee began to hit us. Finally, the chopper’s nose turned slightly to the left and I could see Captain Tuong. Seeing his face, seeing him sitting there so calmly in the pilot’s seat, made my confidence surge. We would survive.
There was an additional benefit from the rotor wash: it pushed the smoke and fire back from the top of the knoll. Normally during an extraction, the powerful rotor wash was a disruptive force as it kicked up dirt, leaves, small branches and stones while the noise eliminated most verbal communication and the swirling blasts of air hurt the eyes. But, on Christmas Day, 1968, the powerful rotor wash became a unique saving grace for ST Idaho. It pushed the fire and smoke back as the entire team jumped into the Kingbee. The rotor wash was so strong it pushed the flames farther down hill, forcing the NVA to back up or to be burnt by their own fires. As the last man aboard the chopper, I signaled to the door gunner to exit the area. I sat in the door as Tuong lifted the Kingbee straight up for several feet before heading south. As we pulled away from the knoll, fire swept up the hill and engulfed the area where we had been standing moments earlier.
Captain Tuong roared down the canyon we had chugged along only a short while ago. I radioed Spider and gave him a team okay. Once again, ST Idaho entered that magical, post-mission moment. The adrenaline was still flowing; we had survived another target. Every breath of air was sweeter. There was no thought of Christmas, mom or holiday presents. Our gift was to be alive. I looked at Black and Bubba. They had burnt eyebrows, burnt arm hair and all sorts of soot and black ashes smeared on their sweaty faces. I started to shiver as the Kingbee headed southeast to Quang Tri. The shivers were triggered by several elements: the cold air hitting my sweaty, fear-laced body, the chopper gaining altitude where the temperature was much colder than that of the LZ and realizing once again just how close ST Idaho had come to getting wiped out. As the One-Zero, the team leader of this small, valiant band of recon brothers, I had extra shivers.
Captain Tuong flew us back to Quang Tri first because he was getting low on aviation fuel. We returned to Phu Bai in near darkness. As he had in the past, Captain Tuong allowed me to ride in the co-pilot seat with him during that last leg of the flight. I asked Captain Tuong if he was getting tired of pulling ST Idaho out of hot spots.
“No sweat,” he said. “Beaucoup smoke, but no sweat. Kingbee go home now. We fly you tomorrow?” I told him I could use a day off. He said Kingbees would fly tomorrow, for sure. Kingbees never rest. When we landed at FOB 1, he wished me a Merry Christmas but declined my offer for a Christmas drink at the club. His family was waiting for him in Da Nang, where the 219th South Vietnamese Air Force was based.
Black and Shore gathered up food and drinks for the team while I went into S-3 for the initial de-briefing. Later, I took a shower in the cold water at Phu Bai. By that time, I was used to cold showers and it felt good. After-mission showers were special. Not only did I wash away the physical sweat and dirt from being on the ground, but for a few moments I always appreciated the fact that I had survived another day on the ground in the Prairie Fire AO. While walking back to my room I heard Silent Night playing from a tinny-sounding AM radio, complete with static and interference. The old German Christmas carol stopped me in my tracks. It was Christmas.
Christmas was my favorite holiday, more so than my birthday, because Granddad Meyer, Grandmom Stryker and Uncle Rob Meyer would always join us for Christmas dinner and opening presents. Two years earlier, on Christmas, there had been snow in Trenton when I had leave for basic training at Ft. Dix. I thought of the snow, my mother’s mashed potatoes and gravy, and the warm house in the cold winter. It all seemed so far away. But standing there listening to Silent Night in the safety and darkness of FOB 1, it felt like Christmas. I relished the moment because only a few hours earlier I had feared the worst. I also felt very tired and very old. I returned to the room I shared with Spider and Don Wolken.
The nightmares began that night. All of a sudden I was back on the LZ. I could feel the heat of the fires, I could smell the smoke and I was coughing. Once more I was standing on the western edge of the LZ, flapping my orange and pink panel trying to get the attention of the Kingbee pilot descending toward us. The flashback was an instant replay of the day’s earlier trauma with one major exception: at the point where the Kingbee appeared to abort the descent I could see a young lieutenant in the pilot’s seat instead of Captain Tuong. It was the lieutenant who had failed to pull out the second half of a spike team in an A Shau Valley target earlier in the year after a veteran Kingbee pilot had pulled out the first half. The veteran Kingbee pilot, Captain Thinh, returned for the remainder of the men after the young lieutenant had panicked. Thinh got them out during one of the more courageous and gutsy extractions in SOG history.
In my dream, I knew the young lieutenant because the veteran Kingbee pilots were patiently working with him. Quietly the word had spread among the One-Zeros in camp, if he’s flying and you’re under enemy fire, just bend over and kiss your ass good-bye. He didn’t have the flying acumen and courage of Kingbee captains Thinh and Tuong, or lieutenants Trung and Trong, who had all earned the respect of Special Forces men at FOB 1. In my dream, when I saw the young lieutenant’s face my panic changed to sheer, unadulterated fear. I yelled into the PRC-25 to Spider, “Where’s Captain Tuong! Where’s Captain Tuong, God dammit!” As I yelled into the FM radio, I saw panic roll across the young Kingbee pilot’s round, oriental face and the lieutenant gave me a mournful look as he pulled out of the landing approach, leaving us on the ground. I felt the flames, the heat, and the smoke closing in. My throat tightened, my eyes were watering.
I sat straight up in bed. I was soaked with sweat, my throat felt raw and my eyes ached from the imagined smoke. The terror was so real I hadn’t noticed a rat scurrying off my bed until I heard it hit the floor.
Two days later, Bubba and I sat talking to his buddy, ST Virginia team member, Doug “the Frenchman” Le Tourneau. The Frenchman and his team had been extracted earlier after making contact with the enemy on the fifth day of their mission.
He asked Bubba if he was on the ground Christmas Day. The Frenchman said that by the time the third day of their mission arrived, there was no enemy activity to report and he had forgotten that it was Christmas. Bored, he began exploring the various FM frequencies on his PRC-25. After a few clicks on the dial he came across a clear Vietnamese channel, where the conversation sounded urgent. Unable to understand what the Vietnamese were saying, or who they were, the Frenchman asked ST Virginia interpreter Hoahn to listen to the conversation. In a few moments, a frown creased Hoahn’s brow. He told the Frenchman that he was listening to NVA soldiers and it sounded like they were setting up an ambush for American troops. He was having a difficult time understanding exactly what the North Vietnamese soldiers were saying because their dialect was different and he was unfamiliar with their slang.
Then Hoahn stared in horror at the PRC-25. He told the Frenchman that the North Vietnamese were attempting to set up an ambush for ST Idaho. The Frenchman told ST Virginia’s One-Zero, Mike Childers, what Hoahn had heard on the radio and requested permission to go to an emergency frequency as soon as possible to alert ST Idaho. Permission granted. As Hoahn listened to the PRC-25, Le Tourneau turned on his emergency radio and quickly raised Covey. At the time, he didn’t realize Spider was already in the area of operation. As he started to explain what Hoahn had heard on the radio, the interpreter grabbed his arm and told him to tell ST Idaho that the NVA had an ambush waiting to the northeast of their position. The Frenchman immediately passed the word to Spider. After a few more minutes of monitoring the NVA radio transmissions, the FM frequency suddenly went dead. Covey was focused on getting us extracted and didn’t return to the ST Virginia frequency. Now I knew where Spider had gotten his information and why he wouldn’t let us move northeast.
The Frenchman continued his story. On the fifth day of ST Virginia’s mission, the team moved to another location on the trail and he positioned himself behind a large log where he could view the trail and still be able to signal his team members. At around 1400 hours, a scout for an NVA company came down the trail and stopped at the log where the Frenchman was hiding. For some reason, the AK-47 toting scout stepped backwards toward the log and lifted one leg over it, as if he was about to slide across it. Before the NVA soldier’s foot touched the ground, the Frenchman stood up right alongside the startled NVA troop. There was a brief moment when the NVA looked into the Frenchman’s eyes, saw Le Tourneau’s CAR-15 rising toward him and realized that he had made a tragic mistake. The Frenchman, on his second mission with ST Virginia, was so unnerved that he opened fire on full automatic, emptying the entire magazine into the NVA soldier, killing him instantly. The NVA company chased ST Virginia for more than an hour, with Le Tourneau calling in air strikes, until finally getting extracted on ropes by a Kingbee.
For the Frenchman, however, the adventure didn’t end there. As the helicopter lifted him off the ground, his CAR-15 became tangled in the rope above him and then he was flipped upside down. That fucking D-ring! The NVA were still hot on their trail, so he lobbed hand grenades at the enemy and managed to fire off a couple of rounds from his M-79 as he was pulled from the jungle.
Bubba and I filled in the missing pieces for Le Tourneau about what happened on Christmas Day and how lucky we were. We didn’t want to think about what would’ve happened if the Frenchman hadn’t intercepted that transmission or if Capt. Tuong hadn’t performed his aeronautical feat. Bubba and I both knew he had saved our lives.
* * *
What I didn’t know was that Christmas 1968 would haunt me sporadically for more than 25 years. After a while, I was able to stop sitting upright, sweating with fear when the nightmares hit. It’s been almost 10 years since I last had that dream, but every Christmas, nightmares or not, I always take a moment to think of Captain Tuong’s courage. No sweat. Kingbees never rest.