Near the end of September, the brass asked Schaff if he’d mind becoming the One-One, or assistant team leader. The brass wanted to put an overweight Special Forces sergeant from Germany who had a previous tour of duty with a Green Beret A-Team, but no experience in Laos, in the One-Zero slot simply because he had more rank. Schaff objected. He was quietly removed from the team and the senior SF Sergeant took command.

At that time, FOB 1 teams were being pushed hard to get on the ground. Thus, there was little or no time for social niceties. More important, with the new One-Zero, there was no dress rehearsal. No practice mission. And he had little or no respect for ST Alabama’s Vietnamese team members. He dismissed veteran SOG recon sergeants who tried to offer him advice about running missions across the fence. Among those who tried to talk to him were Spider Parks and Pat Watkins. Both were experienced One-Zeroes; both had been to Laos and both were respected SOG members at FOB 1. When asked later about the team leader, Spider simply said he had shunned experienced counsel.”

The brass assigned ST Alabama to run a target just southwest of the A Shau Valley. Black, unaware of Schaff’s earlier discussions with the brass, was introduced to the new One-Zero and they were ordered to fly a visual reconnaissance over the target. Lynne M. Black Jr., posing at the range in Phu Bai. Note his unique vest, which he designed and a few others duplicated. (John S. Meyer photo) VRs were flown as close to the launch date as possible and usually in a small, single-engine observation aircraft flown by two Vietnamese pilots. In this case, the VR was a day or two before the target launch date of 5 October 1968. Black and the new One-Zero flew in the rear seat of the small aircraft. The primary and secondary landing zones had been selected when the aircraft was hit by 12.7mm heavy machine gun fire.

Suddenly the cabin was sprayed with blood. A 12.7mm round had ripped through the floor, struck the co-pilot under the chin, hitting with such force that his helmet slammed against the ceiling and ricocheted into Black’s lap – still containing part of the co-pilot’s bloody head.

The pilot slammed the small aircraft down to treetop level and returned to South Vietnam. Black, unable to move or open a window, puked into the helmet. That night, there were a fair share of jokes in camp about Black’s “puke and brain” salad. Saturday morning, 5 October, there was no laughing when the Vietnamese-piloted Kingbees flew west across South Vietnam from Phu Bai, near the China Sea, to the A Shau Valley into the target area. The weather was clear in Phu Bai, but cloudy over the AO. During that flight, Black remembered how the launch commander had said this mission would be a cakewalk. Spider and Watkins, however, knew that it was a tough target where the NVA had previously run out FOB 1 teams and there were no new landing zones for the team insertion. For this target, Watkins was the Covey rider in the Air Force O-2 Cessna, piloted by Captain Hartness. ST Alabama’s insertion started smoothly, as the first Kingbee landed quickly with the One-Zero, One-One and three Vietnamese team members quickly exiting the aircraft.

As Black’s Kingbee spiraled downward toward the LZ, he observed an NVA flag planted atop a nearby knoll. From his days in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Black knew that the presence of an NVA flag meant that there was at least a regiment of NVA soldiers in the area. The knoll was surrounded by jungle. On the west side there was a 1,000-foot drop to the valley floor below.

The numbers didn’t compute for Black – approximately 3,000 NVA against nine ST Alabama men?

Several AK-47s opened fire before the Kingbee’s wheels touched down. Nonetheless, Black and the remaining three Vietnamese ST Alabama team members exited the H-34. As the Kingbee lifted off, the NVA gunfire increased significantly and moments later, the laboring Sikorsky H-34 crashed. Although this was Black’s first SOG mission into Prairie Fire, he knew the odds were stacked against ST Alabama. He and Cowboy argued vigorously for an immediate extraction. The team had been compromised. The element of surprise was gone. The other American, who had not gone through the Special Forces qualification courses at Ft. Bragg, remained silent.