Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one here.
After the NVA soldier tapped one of RT Lion’s team members on the shoulder and told him that it was his turn to pull guard duty for the NVA, RT Lion Team Leader Pat Watkins and two of his team members headed toward the remainder of the team, safely maintaining its night defensive position. After a brief skirmish with NVA soldiers manning a 37mm anti-aircraft weapon, Watkins and his two Montagnard teammates, Er and Rong, approached the “remain over night” (RON) site. It was now near dawn. Watkins heard DeSeta demand the password. He responded and asked if DeSeta had made contact with Moonbeam—the night airborne command aircraft that flew over the area of operations daily.
“Affirmative,” DeSeta replied.
“Then tell them we’re declaring a Prairie Fire Emergency and we want out of here ASAP.”
While DeSeta radioed the distress call to Moonbeam, Watkins and Rong quickly buried three M-14 “toe-popper” anti-personnel mines behind them and then moved forward to join the rest of RT Lion.
The Prairie Fire Emergency was the ultimate “force multiplier” that gave SOG its astounding kill ratio of hundreds, and at times thousands, to one. If a team was not overrun and wiped out in the first few minutes of contact, the enemy knew with dead certainty there was going to be hell to pay. A rain of bombs and fire was headed their way and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
Moonbeam came back with the word that two F-4 Phantom jets were on station and armed with 500-pound bombs. They were asking to be directed to any “hard” targets that needed attention. “Tell them we have a 37mm position and storage area they can work,” Watkins said to DeSeta.
Watkins then asked Godwin if he had the exact coordinates for the team’s location. With 500-pound ordnance about to fall out of the sky, being exact was a matter of life or death. Godwin assured him they were right where he had marked them.
While the team’s position was being passed to Moonbeam, Watkins took the opportunity to deliver a pep talk to the Bru, who were looking a little green around the gills. He told them they had traveled far and trained hard for this day, and now the gods were about to reward them with an opportunity to kill beaucoup NVA, those lousy bastards who had burned their villages and raped their women. By the end, he was pretty worked up himself. All he needed was a chalk board and he could have been Knute Rockne. The Bru looked better, if not impressed.
Godwin interrupted Watkins’ speech to tell him Moonbeam had passed the team’s location to the fast-movers and they planned to deploy their ordnance using the Sky Spot method. This meant, owing to the heavy anti-aircraft activity, they were being forced to release their ordnance at high altitude, which was to say, out of sight.
For a team on the ground, the real translation of Sky Spot was, “We’ll be way up here in the sky moving very fast and hoping to hell we hit the spot, and that the spot we hit is not you or something you cherish.” Sky Spot wasn’t exactly Russian roulette, but the difference between the two was debatable.
With bombs on the way, Watkins directed the team into a crater and told the Bru to keep their heads down. In the distance they could hear long bursts of AK-47 fire coming from Highway 92. This meant the NVA were not sure where the team was and were conducting a “reconnaissance by fire,” which consisted of massacring the underbrush with automatic weapons fire to either a) force the team to reveal itself by returning fire or b) kill or wound the team members where they hid. Inelegant, but effective, and they were getting closer.
Watkins was wondering what had happened to the F-4s when there was a series of furious explosions. Each one lifted the team off the ground and bounced it around like being tossed around in a skillet. One minute it was relatively quiet and the next it was like the end of the world. Dust and smoke blotted out the morning light.
Almost immediately, a series of secondary explosions began to erupt. Watkins raised himself into a crouch several times, thinking he could begin to move away from the crater, only to be blasted back down. Moonbeam reported that even the Phantoms could see the secondary explosions. It was obviously a successful strike. But it still left RT Lion on the ground and in jeopardy.
Just when he was needed most, however, Covey 265—the SOG forward air controller in a Cessna O-2 flown by Air Force Captain Gregg Hartness—came on the radio to say he was about 15 minutes out and would soon be over their position. He’d been monitoring the team’s radio frequency all the way up from Da Nang and was fully aware of the urgency of the situation. He would try to locate an LZ and have extraction assets on the way as soon as possible.
Hartness was as good as his word. Once he was on station and had pinpointed the team’s location, he dropped down to 1,000 feet and began making passes looking for an area where choppers could either set down or hover while the team boarded them. At 1,000 feet, the slow-moving O-2 looked as vulnerable as a low-flying goose. Not surprisingly, he drew both small arms and 12.7mm anti-aircraft fire. Watkins watched in amazement and admiration as Covey 265 made repeated low and slow passes, green tracers arcing up toward him all the while. He had to be taking hits.
Finally Covey reported he had located a useable LZ about 500 meters away. Now all the team had to do was reach it. Covey gave them the direction in which to move and the team started making its way through the elephant grass. Every few minutes they would give Covey a “shiny,” or a brief mirror flash, to let him know their progress and so he could make any needed corrections to their line of march. With it being June, it was already hot even this early in the morning and the ground felt like cement under their boots.
Suddenly DeSeta signaled for the team to halt and told Watkins the tail-gunner had sighted NVA troops behind them. Watkins told him to set out a claymore with a four-minute delay-fuse attached. In addition, Watkins told DeSeta to place a white phosphorous grenade in front of the claymore. This was a little trick Watkins had learned from Medal of Honor recipient Green Beret SFC Fred Zabitoski.
The idea was, when the claymore detonated, it not only cut a murderous swath through enemy troops up to 50 meters away, but the flash and bang of the phosphorous made the NVA think they had been hit with a marker rocket fired by a FAC (forward air control, or Covey) aircraft. Hopefully this would make the advancing NVA believe they were about to become the targets of an airstrike, which naturally would make them have second thoughts about remaining in the area. At the very least, it would give the recon team valuable minutes while the enemy tried to figure out what it was up against. Four minutes later, the claymore went off and the air was filled with white phosphorous smoke and the cries of wounded NVA.
Moving as quickly and as silently as they could through the elephant grass, RT Lion finally made it to the LZ and took up a defensive position in one of the larger craters. Watkins quickly counted heads and pointed where he wanted each team member to go. He peeked over the crater’s rim, took a good look around, and decided he’d been in better places. What he could see was not encouraging, but what he could hear was music to his ears. It was the low, growling roar of approaching A-1 Skyraiders.
With 2,700 horsepower to call on, a Skyraider’s reciprocal engine was one of the most powerful ever placed in a single-engine aircraft. A lumbering Skyraider could carry a massive payload of bombs, rockets, mines, and flares. Moreover, it could deliver them all on a dime. It was the answer to every team’s prayer when it came to close air support. It was also the most terrifying weapons system the NVA faced when they took on a recon team. When the Skyraiders arrived on station, the enemy body count skyrocketed.
The A-1s arrived just as the team started taking incoming mortar fire. Godwin quickly calculated the coordinates for the mortar’s location and the information was passed on to Covey, who in turn relayed it to the A-1s. A laconic, whistling voice came back down the line to DeSeta. “It’s crispy critter time, so ya’ll keep your heads down.”
Within seconds, the area in front of the team exploded into flame, the deadly napalm coating everything in its erupting path. Flaming NVA soldiers ran briefly toward the team before falling to the ground in agonizing death throes, the hand grenades and ammunition they carried cooking off like firecrackers. The elephant grass was also on fire.
The napalm had definitely slowed the NVA advance, but it had not stopped it. Covey reported that the extraction choppers were five minutes out and the team needed to be ready to move fast.
Two gunships from the 7th Air Cav roared over the LZ. Watkins put out two bright orange marker panels and the gunships confirmed they had the team in sight. As they looped back to make their first strafing run, the gunships reported that a large enemy force was moving toward the LZ and they were going to attempt to discourage it. As they made their run, pouring M-60 machine gun fire and 2.75″ rockets into the enemy, RT Lion could see the air fill with green tracers hitting the helicopters. They were taking a real beating, but they hung in there and kept pouring fire down on the NVA. It was an incredible show of raw guts and determination.
Covey came on the radio to say the gunships had taken casualties and were leaking fuel, oil, hydraulic fluid, and just about everything else, so they were being forced to head home, but the extraction slicks were on station. RT Lion looked around and could see its salvation coming toward them, nose on. Although they were flying at a good clip, it appeared as if they were moving at an agonizingly slow speed. As with the gunships before them, they were taking a horrendous amount of fire. One chopper was hit badly and began losing fuel. After a brief confab, the rescue package suddenly broke off their approach and headed back the way they had come, leaving nothing but smoke and RT Lion’s hopes for rescue behind.
When Watkins asked Covey what this meant in terms of time on the ground, all Hartness could say was he would contact the S-3 and ask for a new set of extraction assets ASAP. In the meantime, he promised to get more tactical air support over the team and do all he could to keep them alive. While Watkins appreciated the sentiments, this did not do much to raise his spirits. In his heart of hearts, he felt the team’s position was very bad and likely to get much worse, and quickly. The NVA had literally thousands of men it could throw at the team, while the team had only so much ammunition and not much by way of cover.
What he told his team members, however, was there was going to be a slight delay and reminded them to keep vigilant and be ready for an attack. He didn’t have the heart to tell them it could be hours before another rescue attempt was made. Their stay at Oscar-8 was far from over.
One of the Bru Montagnard team members suddenly signaled that NVA troops were crawling toward the team through the elephant grass. The news was passed on to Covey, who responded that he had two A-1s standing by, one loaded with CBUs (Cluster Bomb Units) and the other with rockets. Both aircraft had their deadly 20mm cannons locked and loaded. Watkins told Covey to bring in the CBUs as fast as possible and to lay it down as close to the team as they could get.
In less than two minutes, the team saw a single-propeller A-1 Skyraider appear in front of their position, its 20mm cannons roaring away. It flew so low they could see the pilot turn his head to locate the team as he released his ordnance. Unfortunately, some of the mini-bombs exploded so close to RT Lion that two Bru received superficial wounds. This was lamentable, but Watkins considered it one of the acceptable prices a recon team paid to keep from being overrun by a superior force.
As the A-1s departed, a small group of NVA suddenly rose up out of the grass behind the team and charged into them, AK-47s blazing on full automatic. De Seta, his red Communist star facing forward, rose up and opened fire at near point-blank range. The Bru joined in as other groups of NVA popped up from the elephant grass and attempted assault after assault.
What followed were several hours of deadly cat-and-mouse, with the mouse hunkered down in its little hole and the NVA cat making paw swipe after paw swipe in an attempt to claw it out or do it in. An ironic situation for a team named Lion to find itself in.
While RT Lion fended off attacks, Covey directed airstrike after airstrike at the NVA troops, the storage area, the anti-aircraft guns and anything else he could draw a bead on. Throughout the day, primary and secondary explosions followed one after another, as the strikes found their mark. Whatever the team’s fate might turn out to be, the NVA were paying a hellacious price for messing with it.
With daylight, ammunition, and ideas fast running out, it was like a true message from God when Watkins heard Covey report that the South Vietnamese Air Force’s 219th Special Operations Squadron had one of its legendary Kingbees en route. For once, Watkins’s spirits actually rose. Not that he didn’t love the living bejesus out of the 7th Air Cav, but the Vietnamese of the 219th had time, after time, after time proven themselves to be about the most daring, most imaginative, most aggressive, and all-around finest pilots on the face of the globe. If RT Lion had a chance in hell of getting out, a Kingbee pilot would be the one to find it and exploit it, no matter how slight that chance or how deadly the odds. That was simply what they were pledged and committed to doing, day after day.
More good news followed when Covey relayed that the lone Kingbee would be escorted by Marine gunships from HML-367, a bad-ass bunch of fliers who went by the code name “Scarface.” Things were definitely going to rock and roll with them on station. Scarface enjoyed nothing more than kicking NVA ass and taking names, and then coming back around to kick more ass just for good measure, on general principle, and for the sheer fun of it.
Covey splashed a healthy dose of cold water on Watkins by reminding him it was very nearly dark and that, despite all the bombs dropped, rockets fired, and gun runs made, the enemy was still pumping out an enormous amount of fire and still moving forward. Pulling RT Lion out of Oscar-8 was going to be as difficult and dangerous an extraction as could be imagined. They would have just one chance to pull it off. If they muffed it, RT Lion would be spending the night and would most likely not see the next morning.
Sobering information indeed, but Watkins did not want to discourage his team, so he just gave them his best grin and said, “Let’s get ready to go.”
In the distance, Watkins could hear the distinctive sound of the old nine-piston Sikorsky H-34 Kingbee chugging its way along, a steady base note to the higher whop whop whop of the Hueys. He squinted into the twilight and when he could finally make out their dim silhouettes, he flashed his strobe light through the barrel of an M-79 grenade launcher so as to mask it from enemy sight.
The helicopters acknowledged having RT Lion’s mark and the Hueys immediately divided and made a split run, one raking the team’s forward perimeter with rockets and machine gun fire and the other working its rear. It was a beautiful show.
Watkins yelled over the noise to blow all the claymores. By setting off all the claymores at once, he hoped to avoid having any uninvited NVA join the team. They went off in a deafening blast and blinding flash.
As the Scarface duo looped around to make their second and final run, they confirmed there were dozens of dead and dying NVA scattered around within feet of the bomb crater. Unfortunately, they also saw more troops advancing. It was down to the short strokes.
As the Scarface gunships began their last pass, the Kingbee tucked itself in behind them and came roaring on. But rather than set down outside the crater and have the team come to him, as Watkins fully expected, the pilot pulled up and hovered over the crater. As the team looked up in disbelief, the old H-34 warbird began gently settling itself down toward the team like a mother hen about to cover her chicks. By the light of burning elephant grass, Watkins was able see into the Kingbee’s cockpit and was startled to find the co-pilot’s seat empty. In the pilot’s seat, however, was his much-admired friend Captain An, a man who had saved Watkins’s bacon on many other difficult occasions, but none quite like what he faced here at Oscar-8.
Capt. An lowered his Kingbee toward the team with a precision and steadiness that gave an entirely new meaning to the word cool. His face was smooth and calm, but there was steel in his eyes as he worked both feet and hands to maneuver his chopper as close to RT Lion as he could. At one point, Watkins could have sworn that An nodded to him as if in casual greeting. The whole scene bordered on the surrealistic, what with the LZ lit by a flickering brush-fire, the sounds of gunfire and explosions, the smell of cordite and burned human flesh, and this improbable savior hovering above.
As Watkins had experienced before, the action took on a dreamlike quality. Sounds faded as if someone had turned down the volume. The air thickened: Movement appeared to be in slow motion, and the brain snapped individual frames that would never, ever be forgotten. Looks of fear or pain on other faces, bodies being blasted backward, a piece of someone on the ground, a scrap of cloth, one’s own hand clutching a weapon or shaking wildly as it tries to execute some simple, well-rehearsed but now impossibly difficult task. This is what war looks like when the mind is under stress.
Watkins could hear small-arms fire thumping into the Kingbee’s body, and he fully expected that at any moment it would either pull up and exit or come crashing down on them. But it did neither. It settled into a stationary hover, its front wheels placed delicately inside the crater. And there it sat, an unbelievable vision, a picture postcard of an old warrior taking a pounding but refusing to falter.
Watkins, DeSeta, and Godwin began heaving Bru into the chopper. Godwin followed. Then DeSeta, after taking an anxious look at his team leader. Finally, in accordance with the time-honored rule and hallowed tradition, the One-Zero’s feet were last to leave the killing-ground of Oscar-8.
With the door gunner and team pouring small-arms fire and M-79 rounds into the perimeter beyond its rim, the Kingbee lifted up and out of the crater. As a last defiant gesture, Watkins threw a red smoke grenade onto the LZ. This signal was universally understood by anyone who supported SOG recon; the team was out and the LZ was clear, so everyone could pound the living shit out of it.
But they were not home free, not yet at least. Anti-aircraft rounds were bursting around them like World War II ack-ack fire. Capt. An was dipping and juking in an effort to dodge the bursts and make himself harder to track. He still looked as calm, cool, and collected as if he was making a routine flight. For these guys, thought Watkins, maybe this was a routine flight.
When the Kingbee touched down at Khe Sanh, DeSeta, Godwin and the grinning door gunner walked around counting bullet holes, but soon gave up. There were too many, and besides, it was just too unsettling to contemplate what might have been.
Watkins learned later that Capt. An had chosen to fly solo into Oscar-8 because he knew exactly how dangerous it was. He’d lost Kingbees there before and was determined not to risk more lives than necessary. He figured if his ship went down while trying to save RT Lion, it would just be him and the door gunner. To him it seemed a simple and perfectly logical decision. No big deal.
Incredibly, everyone who participated in the mission was alive and well. RT Lion was home, a seasoned veteran of Oscar-8.
It had been their turn, after all.
(Featured image: Lou “Jake Three Zero” DeSeta of RT Lion. The photo was taken a few days before RT Lion launched into Oscar-8 target in Laos. Note the black hat with the red start that DeSeta is wearing: He recovered it from a dead NVA soldier during a firefight when DeSeta was serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade prior to arriving at FOB 3 with SOG Special Forces.)