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Fortunate is the general staff which sees a war fought the way it intends.
-- Richard M. Watt
My experiences are those from the perspective of a gunship pilot. I flew Cobras with the 235th Aerial Weapons Company (the Delta Devils) out of Can Tho in '68 and '69. The 235th was an all-Cobra company and we gunship drivers were used as hired guns for anyone in the Delta who wanted helicopter gunships to come and shoot up stuff. We nearly always were dispatched as a single light fire team (two Cobras).
The tactics in the unit changed completely during the time I was with the 235th. When I came to the unit in August of '68, it was called the 235th "Aerial Weapons Company" and reflected the idea that a Cobra helicopter gunship was some kind of airborne weapons platform. And, apparently, like artillery, a Cobra was to be used to shoot at targets only from a distance. For example, the company policy at that time was that rocket runs were to originate from about 2500 feet above ground level, were to be made at a shallow dive angle, were always to be made into the wind (consequently, that meant always from the same direction on the same target), and the runs were to be broken off above 1500 feet AGL and well away from the target. (In fact, we were never to fly below 1500 feet at all except for takeoffs and landings.) Perhaps this cautious approach was decided upon because of the fact that Cobras were not that common in Viet Nam at that time and there was relatively little experience with them in actual combat situations. That's just my guess; I didn't ask. I was a new Warrant Officer, a "Wobbly One", and I was just happy to be flying -- and especially flying a Cobra; I loved that aircraft.
The policy also was to lead off all rocket runs by firing the minigun on the front turret of the Cobra at the target, using it for suppressive fire before firing the rockets, and to use the minigun again for suppressive fire on the turning break away from the target. (We were advised not to fire the minigun while the rockets were being punched off, because this tended to jam the gun.) Using the minigun was a sensible policy, but because we were to stay away so far from the target, the minigun was not very effective except as a noise maker. The pilots often chose not to use the minigun because its limited effectiveness at that range was not worth the work of having to reload it. I confess that this was more often the case when the Cobra pilots had to perform the reloading themselves because they were off some place without a crew chief.
A few months after I came to the unit, and just after I became an Aircraft Commander, the policy changed dramatically. The unit became the 235th "Armed Helicopter Company" and, in terms of tactics, our Cobras were used more like those Huey helicopters which had been adapted to gunship operations and with which the Army had more experience. Low altitude restrictions were lifted and we found ourselves performing a wider range of traditional gunship tasks, including more close-up work on targets. Universally, the pilots liked this policy change. Also, our armament officer was caught by surprise when our use of minigun ordinance rose remarkably.
A typical day for us in the Delta was to show up early just prior to an early morning insertion into an landing zone in some rice paddy, prep the LZ with a recon-by-fire, that is, strafing any hiding places near the LZ where some Viet Cong might be waiting in ambush, and save some of our ordinance until the slicks showed up to land in the LZ and deposit the troops they held. In most cases, these troops were Vietnamese Regional Forces-Popular Forces, called "Ruff Puffs" for short, a sort of Vietnamese National Guard.
Upon the arrival of the slicks, we usually flew around the LZ making noise, and looking threatening, in order to frighten off anyone in the area whose sleep we may have disturbed.
After the insertion, we occasionally enjoyed the luxury of simply hanging around a staging area the rest of the day, waiting to see if the Ruff Puffs that had been inserted into the area of operations ran into any trouble. More often, though, after the insertion, we gunship drivers were dispatched to various other places around the Delta as if we were on a big-scale aerial scavenger hunt, shooting up suspected Viet Cong headquarters here, shooting rockets at suspicious sampans there, escorting Medevac helicopters and occasional Huey ash-and-trash missions. Sometimes we would race to places where troops on the ground had made contact with the VC. It was a nomadic life, covering a lot of territory. We refueled anywhere there were fuel bladders we could get to, rearmed where we could, and scrounged for our own food and water where we could find it.
As a single fire team roaming all over the Delta, we had a lot of autonomy. At that time (in '68 and '69), there were several free fire zones in the Delta. We were given pretty much a free hand to visit any of those areas whenever we could in our travels and engage any targets of opportunity we could find.
Often late in the day on the way back to Can Tho from a mission, if we still had armament left, we would make a side trip to a free fire zone. Most of the time we never found any worthwhile targets, but we would shoot up our armament anyway, sort of like a dog marking his territory.
If I had just one word to describe the Delta, "flat" would be a top candidate. And being practically at sea level, one of the advantages of flying in the Delta was that I was not troubled by having to calculate the difference between my helicopter's altimeter reading and AGL altitude; they were close enough to each other for all practical purposes.
The Delta was a land of rivers, canals, and rice paddies. It was largely open, flat space where trees, an impediment to rice farming, were present, but generally did not congregate together in great numbers.
The question of how an enemy force, one of any size, could organize, move, and conduct operations when the terrain offered little opportunity for concealment is a good one. It's probably the same question that frontier cavalrymen patrolling the flat grasslands of the Midwest plains asked themselves about the Commanches. Perhaps, it was the same question that troubled the British when the Zulus appeared to simply rise out of the ground and swept over them at Isandhlwana.
Specifically, in regard to "large" force operations in the Delta, there were only a few operations in which I participated and where there was a force of more than a couple of companies, at most. The only two large force operations that I can remember involved a reported invasion force from Cambodia around the Parrot's Beak and another time when there were rumored to be several companies collected in the U Minh Forest. I use the words "reported" and "rumored" because I never saw for myself, nor personally engaged, large numbers of enemy forces in those operations, and neither did anyone else as far as I remember. Predominately, the forces I encountered in the Delta were groups of fifty or less.
Undoubtedly, the relative lack of natural concealment in the Delta worked to the disadvantage of Charlie for large force operations. And not only could Charlie not amass large numbers of people easily without being detected, it was also difficult for Charlie to employ larger weapons. Larger weapons are heavier and harder to carry, especially when there is only a small number of people to share the load and the weapons may have to be carried across open space where it is not wise to sit down and rest awhile.
Our unit rarely encountered anything other than small arms fire while flying. Only a few times was I ever shot at by anything larger than small arms, and I never took any actual hits while flying other than from small arms. These usually only peppered holes in the tail boom (Charlie never learned to lead me enough).
Of course, we were sometimes inconvenienced by mortar shells when we parked at some remote staging area, and my aircraft suffered shrapnel damage when a grenade landed behind the tail boom one time. That was right after my fire team had landed at a small remote, and supposedly secure, airfield and right after the copilot had finished tying down the rotor blade back there. The same grenade that sprinkled shrapnel on the tail of my Cobra also put holes in the nose of the wing ship parked directly behind mine. We were parked so close together that it must have been a two-birds-with-one-stone opportunity that some part-time Viet Cong couldn't pass up. I suspect that, like Deputy Barney Fife who carried only one bullet in his shirt pocket, this VC had one grenade he had been saving for just the right occasion and we gave him the chance he had been waiting for.
This is an example of my perception that Charlie relied more on guerrilla tactics in the Delta than elsewhere. This was due to the constraint of having smaller and more lightly equipped units, a constraint which was at least an indirect result of a shortage of natural terrain concealment.
The relative lack of terrain concealment certainly worked to the disadvantage of Charlie, but it also was a disadvantage to us. Charlie could see us coming from a long way.
As a gunship pilot and as a matter of tactical advantage, I wanted to engage Charlie. The odds were heavily in my favor. Especially in the Delta, his relatively small numbers and small arms were a poor match for my pair of fast, maneuverable, and heavily armed gunships. I'm sure Charlie thought so, too. That's why he generally tried to avoid us.
Because Charlie was less of a lethal threat in the Delta than in other parts of the country and because it was harder to tempt him to take us on, I believe we may have been less cautious in our tactics than our gunship pilot counterparts in other parts of the country. For example, we could do reckless things like repeatedly flying the same pattern on a target run, and be more likely to get away with it.
I think my mindset was the same as any other gunship pilot. I wanted to pick a fight -- but, of course, on my terms. And that meant I wanted to surprise the enemy, an objective that was especially challenging in the Delta because of all that wide open space where Charlie could see for miles and miles. In the Delta, low-level was about the only way we could hope to sneak up on anyone.
Even at low-level, it was difficult to sneak up on Charlie because, even if he couldn't see us, he could hear us coming, especially in the Delta where there weren't a lot of natural sound barriers to blanket the noise. However, I discovered that an extremely low-level approach, when the terrain allowed it and the conditions were right, would work sometimes, giving us the element of surprise we needed.
For example, on one particular occasion I remember, it worked quite well. There was a free fire zone along a wide, deep, and fairly straight river tributary that emptied into a larger river. (The name of the river escapes me now. At one time, I could tell you the name of all of the rivers in the Delta, and all of their cousins.) During the dry season, the tributary carried little water. With these conditions, I hatched a plan with my team that took us low-level up the main river to where the nearly-dry tributary emptied into the larger river. We turned there and flew up the tributary. The banks of the tributary were wide enough and deep enough, and the water was low enough at that time during the dry season, for us to fit into the river bed with just the top of the mast and the main rotor blades sticking above the banks. We flew up this tributary for almost five klicks. It was straight enough that we were able to average about 120 knots flying down in it.
When we got to the zone, we popped up out of the river bed and were rewarded to find a half dozen weapons-carrying folks there. They were surprised to see us. We relieved them permanently of their military service responsibilities.
Being able to get there by flying in the river bed, and being able to use our speed in there, was an effective combination. It not only prevented them from seeing us before we got there, the river banks also helped mask our sound, giving us just the extra edge we needed to catch them.
Of course, this whole plot never would have worked if we had come out of the river bed and found we had missed the zone. Flying up the main river some ten klicks, finding the mouth of the tributary, and then determining when we were at the zone on the tributary -- all at low-level -- required some sharp map reading and navigation skills. Those tasks were handled by my front seat co-pilot/gunner. All I had to do after concocting this scheme was avoid flying us into the banks of the tributary and remember to turn on the hot switch before we got there.
Note: by Ira Will McComic
This Day in History
Britain passes the Quartering Act, requiring the colonies to house 10,000 British troops in public and private buildings.
General Douglas MacArthur threatens the Chinese with an extension of the Korean War if the proposed truce is not accepted.
The 2nd Infantry Division's artillery units began to support the embattled 7th Infantry Division on Pork Chop Hill, firing 15,000 rounds in one week.
Viet Cong ambush a truck convoy in South Vietnam damaging 82 of the 121 trucks.
The North Vietnamese "Ho Chi Minh Campaign" begins. Despite the 1973 Paris Peace Accords cease fire, the fighting had continued between South Vietnamese forces and the North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commences air strikes against Yugoslavia with the bombing of Serbian military positions in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo.