In late January of 1970 Smitty was getting a reputation
as a pretty wild pilot flying as a War Wagon Aeroscout lead.
I was flying as his wingman, called trail, when we found all those guys out in the Plain of Reeds and we got a bunch of easy kills one day. It was late afternoon and we were working a big area between Firebase B43 at Chi Lang and the Cement Plant. It had been a long day and we hadn’t found much. Old Smitty and I were both getting low on gas and we were heading our Hughes OH6A helicopters toward the refueling point at the Cement Plant.
“Eagle Eye” Cpt. Roy Sudeck was flying C&C and he’d been out there for over ten hours when he called us on the radio. We were right at about the midway point between B43 and the Cement plant. Roy said, “I’ve got a trail and it looks real fresh and heavily traveled, how about following it”? He gave us vectors to it and we started following the recently used trail. Since Smitty was flying lead and I was trail, I was making wide orbits around him as he searched along the path.
Actually I came upon them first. There, out in the open were about five guys wearing Tan colored uniforms and they were all huddled around a map on the ground. Then I saw a bunch more guys, looked like maybe a fifty to sixty or even more. They were near the guys by the map but were partially concealed from aerial observation by some banana trees, low shrubbery and tall grass. I’d only been in country for a couple of months and I was a relatively new Scout pilot and my gunner was fairly new too. We didn’t know if these guys were friendly RF/PFs or ARVNs or what they were. I called lead on the radio and said, “I got guys down here! They’re not running or even moving! Just looking up at me! I don’t know if they are bad guys or not”! So Smitty pops up into a tight left turn and breaks around to where I’d been. He flies over to those guys, almost hovering while his gunner drops a smoke and it lands right on their map! He radioed the Crusaders orbiting above in their Cobra gunships, “We got yellow smoke out, hit it with everything you have”! We held off a little way from the target. The Cobras made one pass and dumped all they had on the smoke. We sped back into the area and there were bad guys running everywhere and there were bodies and equipment lying all over the place. Then we just started shooting. Man, there were uniformed troops all over the place. I never saw anything like it again. Some were hidden down under twelve foot tall banana trees and some of them were out in the open. A bunch of the NVA troops had been digging fighting positions and foxholes. It looked like they were getting dug in to fight a war. At first they didn’t offer much resistance. They were totally surprised, confused and unprepared. Many of their weapons were stored in the traditional triangular “stack arms” position. Oh a few guys got shots off at us, but it really was like the old saying goes about, “shooting fish in a barrel”. We just shot the shit out of them. We’d finish one and just swing the M60 on to another. We flew around for at least twenty minutes, just shooting up everything we had for the M60 and the mini-gun and dropping frags on them. Smitty’s gunner shot a soldier and when the impact of bullets tore his shirt open they noticed that the soldier was a woman. That bothered Smitty and his gunner a little.
With all the excitement I finally noticed the needle on my fuel gauge was on empty and it had stopped bouncing. I called Smitty and asked him what his fuel status was like. He yelled, “Shit! We’ve got to haul ass for the Cement Plant right now”! By then the second team of Crusaders had arrived overhead and they were itching to get into the shooting fest.
We were about half way to the Cement Plant when Ol’ Smitty’s helicopter’s engine flamed out. He made a pretty decent autorotation but during the landing the main rotor chopped off the tailboom. He knew he was going to be in deep shit for running out of gas.
A Huey from the Longknives had shown up and had been accompanying us to the refuel point. The Huey landed near Smitty and the aircraft commander went over to Smitty’s ship. I don’t remember the Lt.’s name but I remember he was a real clown and that he wore a specially made “armored “ jock strap. He tells Smitty they need to make sure the aircraft has some battle damage so they can write it off as a “combat loss”. “Instead of admitting that you ran out of fuel, we’ll say you were shot down”. The Lt. sent his doorgunner back to the Huey to get a backup AK47. Then he told the doorgunner, “Go over to that Loach and fire a couple of rounds into the engine. Make it look like battle damage”. Later that evening, after maintenance had recovered the helicopter they had some very pointed questions about how the engine had gotten shot full of holes but there were no holes in the engine doors.
Apparently the doorgunner had opened the engine cowling doors, shot the engine a few times and then properly secured the doors closed.
The scary part of this for me was that my fuel level had been no better than Smitty’s before his flame out and that I had landed right next to him. After seeing that Smitty and his gunner were OK and in the Lt.’s “safe” hands, I took off and flew on to the cement plant. I was sweating bullets the whole way, knowing we were running on fumes and expecting the engine to quit at any second.
After we refueled we went back to where Smitty was. Another Longknife Huey had arrived to slingload the OH6 back to Vinh Long. My gunner and I returned to where the big fight was going on but by then there wasn’t much use for Scouts. The Cobras were running racetracks around the NVA on the ground. One team of two Crusaders would be rearming while the other team worked over the enemy. They relieved each other on station. And they kept shooting until it was too dark to see the targets. Before dark, more Longknife Slicks had begun to insert two ARVN Infantry Battalions who would execute blocking and clean-up operations to the north and south of the enemy’s position.
As the ground assault progressed, intelligence data began to trickle in. We had caught a heavily equipped NVA Sapper Battalion. They were hauling a number of 12.7mm machine guns on carriages. They also had a bunch of RPGs, other guns and lots of explosive devices. The enemy unit had crossed into Vietnam from Cambodia the previous night. But they had taken much more time to cross the wide open Plain of Reeds than they had planned on. They had been digging in for the night when we caught them.
They were on their way to the U Minh Forest and the woman Smitty had killed was their local VC guide.
Most of the troops were green and on their first excursion into South Vietnam. They had been briefed by their cadre that all helicopters they encountered would be friendly and that under no circumstances were they to fire on them or even be concerned with their presence. That explained why they seemed reluctant to return fire.
That afternoon, “D” Troop, 3rd Squadron of the 5th Air Cavalry claimed 109 enemy soldiers Killed By Airstrike (KBA).