One of the more amazing stories to emerge from the eight-year secret war during the Vietnam War took place on October 5, 1968, west of the A Shau Valley—one of the deadliest targets run by recon teams based at the top-secret compound in Phu Bai, FOB 1, run under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam–Studies and Observations Group, or simply SOG.
Earlier in 1968, the communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had inflicted severe losses on SOG recon teams running missions in the A Shau Valley and west of it in Laos. That valley was a key location where enemy troops and supplies were funneled down the notorious Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam to take the war into major cities in the northern sector of South Vietnam, Hue, Phu Bai, and Da Nang. Earlier in the war, three Green Beret A Camps were overrun by NVA and Pathet Lao troops. By the fall of 1968, NVA gunners were bringing in more anti-aircraft weaponry and special, highly trained sapper units were created to hunt down SOG recon teams. The communists offered what amounted to a “Kill An American” medal for any NVA soldier that killed a SOG recon man.
As the weather cleared over the A Shau Valley on Oct. 3, 1968, the brass assigned recon team ST Alabama to run a target just southwest of the A Shau Valley. Specialist Fourth Class Lynne M. Black Jr., a combat-hardened paratrooper who served one year earlier in the war with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was introduced to a new team leader. The sergeant was appointed team leader of ST Alabama only because he had more rank than Black, who had more experience fighting the NVA than the sergeant. Black was introduced to the new One-Zero (code name for team leader) and they were ordered to fly a visual reconnaissance (VR) over the target.
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 flown two days before the target launch date of October 5, 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 was a fair share of jokes in camp about Black’s “puke and brain” salad.
Saturday morning, October 5, there was no laughing when the South Vietnamese-piloted H-34 helicopters (code named Kingbees) flew west across South Vietnam from Phu Bai, near the China Sea, over 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. Staff Sgt. Robert J. “Spider” Parks and Staff Sgt. Patrick “Mandolin” Watkins, however, knew that it was a tough target where the NVA had previously run out FOB 1 teams. Additionally, there were no new landing zones for the team insertion. For this target, Watkins was the Covey (code name for forward air controller) rider in the Air Force O-2 Cessna, piloted by Air Force Captain Hartness.
ST Alabama’s insertion started smoothly, as the first Kingbee landed quickly with the One-Zero, One-One (assistant team leader) 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 Laos, code named Prairie Fire, he knew the odds were stacked against ST Alabama. He and the South Vietnamese point man on the team, 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.
“No!” said the new One-Zero. “I’m an American. No slant-eyed SOB is going to run me off!” Watkins offered the One-Zero a chance to extract. The offer was declined. The team was to continue.
The team leader then committed a major faux pas: He ordered the point man to walk down a well-traveled trail away from the LZ into the jungle. Black, Cowboy, and the point man, Hoa, argued against heading down the trail. The first rule of SOF recon was to never use trails, especially well-traveled ones.
Welcome to the jungle
The One-Zero pulled rank and ordered the team to move down the trail, with Hoa leading the way and the elder Green Beret following a short distance behind him. The trail wound into the jungle, and curved to the left. ST Alabama moved cautiously. As the team went down the trail, it moved parallel to a small rise on its right that was about 10 to 20 feet above the team. On it, a NVA colonel had quickly assembled a force of 50 NVA soldiers, who set up a classic L-shaped ambush.
The quiet of the early morning jungle was shattered when the NVA troops opened fire with their AK-47s and SKS rifles.
The AK rounds ripped into the point man’s chest and face. The fatal impact of those rounds lifted the canteen covers around his waist, appearing to keep his body suspended in air. What had been a human body milliseconds earlier was being chewed into an amorphous form that hit the ground with a sickening thud. Arterial blood spurted high into the air.
Three rounds slammed into the One-Zero’s head, blowing off the right side of his face, killing him instantly. The One-One, a gutless son of a general, buried his face in the dirt and started praying.
Black and the remaining ST Alabama team members returned fire. The Green Beret stood there, firing on single shot, picking off NVA soldiers on top of the rise. He reloaded his CAR-15 and went down the line, shooting them one after another. Sometimes they spun and he shot them a second or third time.
As the NVA continued to fire on the team, Black and Cowboy formed the team into a circle and directed a barrage of M-79 grenade rounds and CAR-15 fire into the surrounding jungle.
Then startling, eerie silence. Black thought he was in his grave. ST Alabama was in a low spot with the ground rising 10 to 20 feet on both the left and right.
Both the NVA and ST Alabama tended to their wounded while the living combatants slammed loaded magazines into their hot weapons. There was moaning and groaning, human suffering on both sides. Black got on the PRC-25 FM radio to tell Covey about ST Alabama’s tragic turn of events. Black and Tho scavenged weapons and ammo from the dead ST Alabama team members.
Fortunately, Covey was still airborne. Black reported that he had two KIAs and two WIAs and was surrounded by NVA troops.
Covey responded, “You’re not a doctor, nor for that fact, a medic. You can’t determine who’s dead or alive! Bring out all bodies for verification of death.”
Their argument was drowned out when more than 100 NVA regulars opened fire on ST Alabama, as enemy troops had reinforced the initial ambush unit. By now, the NVA were two rows deep: The front row fired AK-47s, the second row threw grenades or fired B-40 RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).
Another Vietnamese ST Alabama team member was wounded. The team had to get out of the hole or die in it.
The bold NVA told the ST Alabama members to “Chieu hoi,” or “surrender,” speaking first in French, then English, and finally, Vietnamese. ST Alabama’s weapons drowned out further Chieu hoi requests. The One-One continued to pray. Black couldn’t believe it.
“This is no time to pray…do unto others before they do unto you!” he yelled. Whether or not the NVA soldiers were praying, they continued to move around ST Alabama, some climbing into the trees. Cowboy and Black crawled 15 feet toward them, close enough so that Cowboy heard the NVA commander tell his troops to prepare to charge ST Alabama’s position. The commander also told his troops on the long side of the “L” ambush not to fire. Black quickly rigged a claymore mine in the direction of the pending charge.
The fearless NVA mounted a charge toward ST Alabama with AK-47s on full automatic. Black detonated the claymore mine. It blew a huge hole in the NVA ranks.
Before the smoke cleared, ST Alabama ran through the human carnage, firing CAR-15s on full automatic and throwing M-26 frag grenades while dragging their three wounded team members out. Miraculously, ST Alabama made it through the NVA wave of attackers and moved back toward the LZ, leaving their dead behind.
Covey had bad news for Black: The Kingbees had to return to Phu Bai to refuel. No extraction was possible for at least two to three hours. Meanwhile, the relentless and bloodied NVA ran after the spike team. Black planted a claymore mine with a five-second time-delay fuse. It wreaked havoc on the hard-charging NVA.
As the smoke cleared and the body parts settled back to earth, ST Alabama split in half and again charged through the battered and torn ranks of the NVA warriors, killing any standing enemy. They counted at least 50 NVA dead.
Again, eerie silence engulfed the team and ST Alabama regrouped. Just as suddenly, a new wave of NVA soldiers rushed the beleaguered team. ST Alabama had been pushed near the cliff. It was a thousand feet to the ground if they went over the edge. Now on line, ST Alabama charged through the weakest NVA flank, killing several more enemy soldiers.
As he moved out, something hit Black on the side of his head, knocking him to his knees. He was scrambling to get up when the grenade went off. The last thing he remembered was being slammed into a tree, face first, and his CAR-15 carrying handle digging into his chest.
He thought he was drowning, but then he felt feet kicking him and hands slapping him all over. It was the team. They were beating Black back into consciousness and pouring water on his face. He tried to get up, but his legs didn’t work. From the knees down, there were no fatigue pants, just surface bleeding. One of the guys started smearing gelatinized rice on the injured One-Two’s (code name for radio operator) legs, arms, and chest. Black’s web gear and what was left of his fatigue jacket were lying shredded, bloody on the ground. The CAR-15 was bent where the barrel met the receiver and the bolt couldn’t be pulled back. One of the team buried it.
By 0900 hours, word of ST Alabama’s precarious position had spread through FOB 1 like wildfire. Requests were made for extra assets. It was now an official Prairie Fire emergency. All aircraft were pulled from their missions and sorties to support ST Alabama. Any gunships attached to SOG were summoned to their aid.
The first gunships to arrive were the Marine Hueys known as Scarface, from HML-367, based in Phu Bai and Da Nang in 1968. With them was a CH-46 with a ladder attached for jungle extractions. When the twin-rotor helicopter entered the AO, it was hammered by heavy enemy ground fire, as were the Marine gunships. Green tracers were seen going toward the CH-46. The ground fire became too intense and the Marine chopper had to withdraw and make an emergency landing at Camp Eagle in the 101st Airborne Division Compound. Despite the hits, Scarface gunships made several passes, expending all ordnance, before returning to base to reload.
Kingbee officers regrouped and prepared to fly back to Laos to extract what was left of ST Alabama. S-3 asked for volunteers for a Bright Light mission and every recon man in FOB 1 volunteered. ST Idaho was scheduled to insert into the Prairie Fire AO the next day, October 6. Because the team was ready to go, there was some initial discussion about Idaho being the Bright Light team. As the day dragged on, however, and the perilous nature of ST Alabama’s situation worsened, the Bright Light option faded because the original LZ was now too deadly for any helicopter to attempt an extraction.
When Watkins returned to FOB 1 for the Cessna to refuel, he told the others that it didn’t look good. He wasn’t sure if they’d be able to get them out. He explained the low, sunken area in the LZ, the spotty weather, and how smoke from expended ordnance hung over the LZ, making it more difficult to spot the team and to deliver air strikes accurately.
Team resupply readied
A resupply of ammo, grenades, claymore mines, M-79 rounds, water, bandages, and morphine was placed on a Kingbee and launched toward ST Alabama.
In Laos, Cowboy worked on Black’s legs. He told Black the last wave of NVA had continued onto the LZ. Cowboy and Black heard more U.S. Marine Huey gunships arrive overhead and witnessed the NVA on the LZ open fire, hammering the lead aircraft.
Again, the One-One panicked, cried, and shouted skyward. The Vietnamese team members, speaking through Cowboy, told Black that they were going to kill the One-One if he didn’t shut up. Black agreed.
“I’ll pull the trigger on him myself.”
“God forgive you!” the One-One responded tearfully.
“You and your God have no place here!” Black retorted. Cowboy grabbed a startled Black by the throat and lifted a Catholic crucifix from his neck and shoved it to his lips.
“It’s the gods who have allowed us to get this far, Round Eyes!” he whispered tersely through clinched teeth.
The sound of approaching Kingbees ended the religious debate as the realities of surviving an A Shau hell became center focus. The able-bodied picked up the wounded and moved toward the LZ. Spider, the Covey rider at this time, told Black that the first Kingbee was enroute to the LZ, but they planned to work the area surrounding ST Alabama with tactical air support first. In this case, a F-4 Phantom jet pilot told Black to “Key your handset for 10 seconds. Put your heads in the dirt, over.”
Black acknowledged his radio transmission and told his teammates to put their heads down. As he looked into the sun, he observed the slowest-moving, full-flapped Phantom he had ever seen. The glide path ratio was critical. Seconds later, he saw the tree line across the LZ explode into sheets of white, yellow, and orange flames, setting the jungle on fire with napalm. The craft banked sharply, appearing to stand its wing tip on the ground. The pilot cranked on the burners, dropped down into the valley below, and then began a vertical climb.
NVA small arms opened up on all sides of the valley. The F-4 took numerous hits on its armor-plated underbelly. Among those shooting at the fast mover were several NVA troops about 20 feet from ST Alabama’s perimeter. As the napalm torched the jungle, dozens of NVA soldiers scurried into the open field to escape the instant inferno that had engulfed their comrades.
As a second jet rolled in for a gun run, the NVA initiated what they called “getting close to the belt.” In this case, the NVA soldiers moved toward or outright charged ST Alabama to get as close to the team members as possible to avoid being hammered or burned by Air Force, Marine, or Army air ordnance.
Firing on single shot, ST Alabama picked off each of them as they came out of the burning jungle. The Phantoms returned with two cannon and minigun runs along the team’s perimeter. Before the dust settled, the Vietnamese team leader, Tho, and Cowboy crawled out and recovered several AK-47s and precious ammunition from the dead enemy soldiers, as their CAR-15 ammo was dwindling to a few precious rounds.
Two of the nine-cylinder Kingbees came chugging up the valley toward ST Alabama. Black popped a green smoke marker. The NVA popped an identical smoke marker, confusing the pilots with devastating results.
Deadly confusion on the LZ
The first Kingbee followed the NVA’s smoke marker, and took a direct hit from a rocket, which toppled it on its side, smashing each rotor blade into the ground. The approaching ST Alabama team members narrowly missed getting hit with shrapnel from the crash.
Black, Cowboy, and another team member charged the rocket position, killing three NVA before a hail of NVA fire drove them back to the team perimeter. The second H-34 hit an outcropping of rock on the western side of the knoll after taking heavy enemy gunfire. It exploded and fell 1,000 feet to the valley floor below, taking with it ST Alabama’s resupply.
Covey barked, “Nice going, Blackjack!”
“Fuck you, Covey,” he replied. Cowboy told the One-One to pray for everyone except Black because he was on the “devil’s side.” Black broke into laughter as he assessed ST Alabama’s predicament: Ammo was desperately low, the blood trails looked like slug slime, the F-4 Phantoms had expended their ordnance, and Covey was belligerent. His nerves were shot. Training and man’s basic survival instinct had completely taken over. Then, the NVA bugles sounded.
Waves of NVA troops carrying SKSs with fixed bayonets advanced on ST Alabama. When they were 15 feet away, ST Alabama opened fire. The semi-automatic SKSs were no match for the fully automatic firepower of the spike team. After the first burst of full-automatic fire, the team went to single shot. It was another turkey shoot. Without a word, a look, or a plan, acting solely on instinct, all of them, except the One-One, scurried forward and dragged back dead NVA soldiers, placing the bodies in a circle around them and stacking them high.
The deadly skirmishing continued for several hours before Covey told Black that more gunships and five Jolly Green Giants, the heavily armored Sikorsky HH-3Es, were en route.
“Blackjack, Covey. What you’re up against is the regiment you were sent to find, over.”
“Is that all, only 3,000 of the bastards? Well, I think we made a dent in ‘em. Who’s winning?”
“They are,” Covey responded. As Black finished his commo, he saw a sight he would never forget. The NVA formed a front line of NVA troops who were firing their AK-47s. Behind them were several NVA soldiers swinging thongs made of leather and cloth, which held three to five hand grenades each, and with a jerk of their collective wrists, the NVA hurlers launched more than two dozen communist-manufactured grenades at ST Alabama.
The sky was full of grenades. Fortunately, they weren’t U.S. grenades. They hit the ground and threw dirt, smoke and dust all over the place. ST Alabama looked up just as the AKs started again, and behind them, the thongs whirling overhead like helicopter blades. When the AKs stopped, the grenades were released. ST Alabama fired. More grenades were released. Alabama threw some back.
ST Alabama was caught in a deadly version of the kid game “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The AK-47s continued to roar. Alabama ducked. The grenades were launched. Alabama rocked. Catch, throw, duck, rock. Catch, throw, duck, rock!
The NVA advanced. Grenade shrapnel severed the antenna on the PRC-25 portable radio Black carried. He quickly rigged an impromptu antenna from wire. The relentless NVA continued to advance, inch by bloody inch.
Cowboy took two Vietnamese team members over the cadaver-walled perimeter, seeking to get another line of fire to direct at the advancing NVA. The advance continued, despite firing from Black and the remaining Vietnamese team members. The NVA were now merely feet away from the team’s perimeter.
At the last moment, with the NVA a few body lengths away from the perimeter, two Huey gunships from the Americal Division, 176th Aviation Company—the Minute Men Muskets of 36-C—arrived. The UH-1B pilots were code named “The Judge” and “The Executioner.” They roared into the battle, first with a minigun blast, followed seconds later with several 2.75-inch rockets placed in the NVA ranks. Alabama was saved, if only for a little while. The NVA backed off for a few moments, briefly licking their collective wounds, although they were far from whipped. New assault lines of NVA troops formed.
Before the NVA opened fire on ST Alabama, however, the Executioner confronted the NVA head on. With both door gunners blazing away with their handheld M-60 machine guns, he hovered inches off of the ground, between the team and the front of the NVA, and skipped several 2.75-inch rockets off the ground into the NVA. Before the bleeding, startled NVA could respond, the pilot lifted the old UH-1B model gunship over the tree line and ducked down into the canyon, regaining enough air speed to return for another pass at the ST Alabama perimeter.
(Featured image shows Lynne M. Black Jr. riding in a South Vietnamese Air Force’s 219th Special Operation Squadron H-34 in late November 1968, en route to a target in Laos. Talking on the radio is SOG team leader Tim Schaaf. Photo courtesy of John E. Peters)
Read part 2 here.