Air Cav

 As a combat infantry platoon leader with A Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), I was in country at the height of the Vietnam War from 1968-69. The Air Cav was famous for implementing the airmobile concept, bringing fresh fighting forces to the battlefield by helicopter rather than humping through the boonies. It was a formidable strategy, and we were fortunate to be able to carry lighter packs, more ammo, and water than many other line divisions. Our AO (area of operation) was I Corps, with the Gulf of Tonkin in the East, parallel to the DMZ and the Laotian border on the West. Near the beach, the terrain was rolling hills and sandy soil with no overhead cover. Near the Laotian border, the terrain became mountainous, three-canopy jungle.

My company made lots of Charlie Alphas (helicopter combat assaults), sometimes twice a day. By my calculation, I made more than 50 CAs during my seven months in the field, including assaults while assigned as the QRF platoon (quick reaction force), where we spent the entire day at the landing strip preparing to attack any enemy unit that might be spotted.

Prepping the LZ

Every assault followed what was to become a familiar pattern. While I appreciated the only opportunity I ever got to cool off, flying in the first bird when it was my platoon’s turn to lead the assault always raised my pucker factor. At about 5 minutes out from the LZ, each man checked his weapon and fired a short burst out the door to make sure it was ready to go. Kneeling between the pilots, I could see the 105-artillery barrage hitting the LZ and raising my comfort level just a little bit. A Willie Peter round (white phosphorous) signaled the end of the barrage, and two Cobra helicopters supporting our assault dipped their noses and darted in, spraying the perimeter with rockets and miniguns. I loved those Cobras. They were always a lifesaver as long as they could see my front-line smoke and knew the direction I wanted them to strafe. Finally, as my first bird pulled pitch and started to land, the door gunners opened up on both sides, spraying the surrounding brush, hopefully keeping any enemy heads that survived the barrage from bobbing up.

How any enemy soldiers could survive this LZ prep is unimaginable, but sometimes they did, and then the LZ rapidly turned from cold to hot (green to red). Enemy soldiers loved to try to take out the second bird, giving the men who had already landed a false sense of security. They’d fire an RPG, and if successful, the helicopter would crash on the LZ. Not wanting to risk additional helicopters, the remaining assault would be diverted to an alternate LZ, hopefully close by, and the company would move to support the men on the ground. Those on the first chopper and those who survived the crash had to fight it out on their own until support arrived. The Cobras remained on station, available to support if the assault ran into trouble. That’s why my men wanted off that first bird as quickly as possible and got to cover. As my chopper came to an abrupt hover 5-10 feet off the ground, my men, riding the skids on both sides, jumped. Jumping from the skids was always dangerous, as your body was thrown forward and your pack rode up on your back, causing your helmet to fly off and your body to tumble forward. But my men knew they were vulnerable. Pilots, too, wanted to get the hell out of a potentially hot LZ.

Once on the ground, assuming no enemy fire, I gave a call to the C&C helicopter (command and control) overhead that the LZ was green and directed my men to areas of the perimeter. As subsequent platoons landed, they took over their assigned sectors of the perimeter, and my men gave up their positions and moved back to my platoon’s area of responsibility. After the company was fully landed, the CO gave the word to reinforced squads to move out on perimeter patrols and look for blood trails, wounded or bodies left behind and try to engage any enemy that might be attempting to retreat from the area. After that, we would hump to a previously selected NDP (night defensive position), recon for night ambush locations, dig our holes, and get ready for the nightly routine of clearing fields of fire, putting out trip flares and Claymores, grabbing something to eat, cleaning weapons and sending out nightly ambushes.

A Free Fire Zone

But Charlie Alphas were much more challenging as we moved into the mountainous, three-canopy jungle near the Laotian border. Our objective in this AO was to locate, block, and destroy NVA units coming into I Corps from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This was a free-fire zone, and if anything moved, you shot it. There were no friendly civilians in the area. The terrain was grueling. We humped up and down mountains. It was a hot, humid, and dense jungle with three layers overhead. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke were a real factor especially for the point man, often following animal trails and chopping through “wait-a-minute vines.” Under these conditions, I changed my point every 15 to 30 minutes. If someone was wounded or keeled over from heat stroke, the only way to get him out was to call for a medevac with a jungle penetrator. In the evening, when we set up for an NDP, it required chopping down trees to open a space where a chopper could hover and toss out supplies.