Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Place Called My Phuoc Tay

Posted for Jim M.

This piece begins with extracts of letters that I wrote home from Vietnam, and continues with my recollections over 30 years later.

7 April 1970

Here we are, right in the middle of beautiful Nowhere. When I say nowhere, I mean it. We are about 30 kilometers due north of Vinh Long in one of those places where the only access is by helicopter or boat. Our CP is in a bombed out village that once was quite a place, but that now looks like something out of a World War II movie.

This place is a testimony to the turbulence which existed in VN politics after the Diem government was toppled. This was one of a series of “Agrivilles” build by Diem. These were planned agricultural and market complexes that were placed at different places all over the country. During the series of coups beginning in ’63, GVN could no longer maintain troops here and this one was abandoned. The people moved out, VC moved in, and the place was pretty well shot up in the subsequent seesaw battles. A few months ago, GVN moved back in strength for the first time since ’65. They have some outposts around and the area is being farmed again, but the VC haven’t given up yet. We haven’t found any since we’ve been here, though.

11 April 1970

I started a letter yesterday by saying that it was starting out as a quiet day—nothing happening. I don’t think that I’ll make that mistake again. Right after the first paragraph, things got a bit busier and didn’t let up until about midnight. A couple of our battalions made contact with several companies of VC and the resulting activity kept us going for a while. Everything worked out all right, but was hectic for a while.

13 April 1970

The past three days have been somewhat hectic. I think that I told you that we finally made contact with a VC/NVA unit after days of beating the paddies with no results. A couple of our battalions fought a hard battle with them on Friday, the VC broke contact late at night, and then we found them again on Saturday. We took a number of casualties, but prisoners, documents, etc, now indicate that we had met the 261A VC BN and dealt them a severe blow. The troops found a number of bodies and equipment, and captured the battalion colors. Indications are that many were killed, including the BN C.O., and X.O., and that the battalion is no longer an effective fighting force. This was an especially important victory since this battalion had recently attacked one of the VN firebases and really wreaked havoc.

May 8, 2007

These comments should serve to fill in some gaps in my earlier remarks about the events of 10 April 1970 near the garden spot of My Phuoc Tay. I was in the air over the fight, and, as I said in the letter of the 11th, it was hectic for a while. My problems were nothing like those of the people on the ground, however.

My boss, who I shall only refer to as Col O, had started off the day flying backseat in the command and control ship that inserted at least one of the battalions of the two that were in the fight. He and I normally swapped off every day unless we received an air cavalry package. Col O had decided that I should fly those since I was armor. Coincidentally, that decision came right after he flew his first mission with them and found that their C&C ships routinely flew quite low.

Sometime in the afternoon, he landed and had me go up, pleading a splitting headache. I’m sure that was true, but it was never easy to pick up a mission in the middle. Fortunately, I had been following the action on the radio, and was pretty well up to speed. As the day progressed, we started getting more and more air support. Just before dark we had a dual problem—we had almost more support than we could use and the VNAF pilot in the front seat of the C&C that I was in was insisting that he had to leave.

The latter problem with the pilot stemmed from the fact that VNAF UH1 pilots were generally cleared for only VFR, i.e., no night flying. I’m not sure how we did it, but my counterpart, LTC Chinn, the regimental commander, and I managed to badger him into continuing to fly well after dark.

The problem with the support was that it all arrived at once. At one time, we had a USAF Forward Air Controller with several sorties of fast movers, a VNAF Spooky gunship (AC-47), a USAF Shadow gunship (AC-119), and a flight of USN Black Ponies (OV-10A Bronco). In addition to that bunch, there were the normal Cobra gunships supporting the lift, and field artillery support from the ARVN.

An immediate problem with all of that stuff flying was the control of airspace, and making sure that everyone understood where the friendly troops were on the ground. As darkness fell, both problems were exacerbated. All of the air guys were on my FM radio frequency, so I made a general announcement that I was the guy in charge in the air, and the American advisor (Captain Bob Redman) was in charge on the ground. In the event of conflict, his instructions were trump.

To sort out airspace, I designated a fire that was burning on the ground and said to all that the fire represented the center of a clock. I then assigned quadrants of the clock to the primary actors, telling them to go out about 10 kilometers and loiter until I called them in. Once they got out there, I asked for a report of who had the least time remaining on station, and called them in first. Once they had expended their ordnance, the next group went in, and so on. The trickiest part of this kind of an action is to make sure that you don’t hit your own troops, and calls for close coordination between the folks on the ground and those in the air. Transmissions have to be clear and precise, with all parties concerned agreeing on where the fire is to be placed.

I had a problem in this regard with the Navy OV-10s. The quality of their support was, as was customary, super, but getting agreement on the target location was daunting. The OV-10A was an absolutely superb aircraft for close support of ground troops. They could fly slow enough and long enough that they had no need for a FAC as the fast movers did.

The target identification procedure that we used in this case was for me to give them a location, and one plane would attack the spot with 7.62 mm machine gun tracers. Once all concerned agreed on the location, they attacked with their 20 mm guns and 5 inch rockets. They could indeed do a job on a ground target, and we always loved to have them flying for us.

The problem this night was that every time the Black Pony attacked, my VNAF pilot would bank. They made at least 2 runs that I couldn’t observe. Finally, I told them that I would be off the air while they made another run. Because the cord was so short, I had to disconnect from the radio in order to hang over the edge of the Huey to watch where they fired. That was no mean feat for someone who dislikes heights as much as I do. Using this unconventional technique, I was able to observe, and then get back on the radio to clear them for attack.

As I recall, the rest of the attacks from the air went well. One of the real potent weapons types in that area with little air defense was the Spooky/Shadow gunships. These were transport planes with 6,000 round-per-minute miniguns mounted, and with a capability to drop flares for illumination. They could stay on station for hours.

I have already said in my quote from my letters that we carried the day, but, of course, it was not without cost. Captain Bob Redman, whom I mentioned above, was wounded during the course of the fight, along with quite a few ARVN infantrymen. Because of the heavy fire and the terrain, we were unable to get a medevac helicopter in to pull out the wounded. The division senior advisor radioed Bob to tell him that he would come in with his C&C ship and pull him out. Bob refused, unless they could also evacuate the VN wounded. For this and other reasons, I submitted Bob for a Silver Star, the only time I did that in a year. (Awards for valor were hard to come by in MACV, at least in IV Corps.) Thirty plus years later I made contact with him and found out that he got the award. It was well earned, and I am glad to finally close that loop.

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