Red Markers: The Rest of the Story

In a departure from genealogy, I have just published a second book about the forward air control (FAC) detachment I served with in Vietnam. RED MARKERS: THE REST OF THE STORY is a sequel to Red Markers, Close Air Support for the Vietnamese Airborne, 1962-1975. The new book picks up a condensed history from the earlier work and expands on stories about the people who served. A lot of new material came to me from Red Hats John Duffy, Dave Fletcher, John Howard, Bob Losik, Barry McCaffrey, and Jesse Myers — members of MACV Advisory Team 162 that fought alongside the Vietnamese Airborne for more than a decade. My thanks to all.

The first chapter about a FAC mission in the Cambodian Fishhook describes in some detail the roles of crew chiefs, radio operators, and FACs to get the job done. This chapter will also appear in the Fall 2022 edition of Air & Space Power History magazine. Another chapter describes the heroic rescue of wounded Airborne troopers and the crew of a downed Medevac helicopter from “Medevac Meadow.” That chapter is included in Phil Marshall’s latest book Helicopter Rescues Vietnam: Volume XVII published in August. Other chapters titled “Living off the Grid” and “Dumb Things in the War Zone” tell a lighter side of the Red Markers’ war.

The Red Marker direct combat role ended in January 1971. This book describes the support received by the Airborne from other FAC detachments during Lam Son 719 in early 1971 and the Easter Offensive in 1972. A separate chapter covers the battles of Kontum, An Loc, and Quang Tri – –  battles told in the order the Airborne deployed to each. The supporting FAC units included those with call signs Covey, Nail, Trail, Rustic, Rash, Sundog, and others. The war stories end during the fall of Saigon with escapees being led to safety by a Catholic seminary student, a man now known to some of us as Chaplain Joseph Vu.

RED MARKERS: THE REST OF THE STORY incorporates updated rosters of Red Marker personnel and an extensive index. I hope you find it a worthwhile read as well as a valuable resource.

It is available now at Lulu Publishing and soon at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Vietnam War Story – Medevac Meadow

As I mentioned before, I have been neglecting genealogy in favor of working on a follow up to the book Red Markers, Close Air Support for the Vietnamese Airborne, 1962 – 1975. The book recounts the history of the forward air controller unit — the Red Markers — I served with in Vietnam. This unit worked exclusively to support the Vietnamese Airborne and the American advisors — known as Red Hats — who served with the Airborne on the ground. The following article describes one of the more exciting engagements that occurred in 1970 during the incursion into the Fishhook region of Cambodia to destroy enemy base camps and supplies.

Medevac Meadow[1]

The Vietnamese 6th Airborne Infantry Battalion moved with the rest of the 1st Brigade from Song Be during early May, reinforcing the three battalions already engaged in the Fishhook. The battalion headquartered at Fire Support Base (FSB) Oklahoma while its troopers maneuvered in the region. FSB Oklahoma was about ten miles inside Cambodia off Highway 7 on the eastern edge of the Memot Rubber Plantation.[2] The fire base was the operational home of the 1st Brigade’s Artillery Battalion of 105 mm howitzers and the long range 8-inch howitzers of A Battery of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery Regiment, the “Proud Americans.”

On 23 May, a task force of the 61st and 63rd Companies of the 6th Battalion encountered NVA troops during a ground sweep about eight miles southeast of FSB Oklahoma. After a brief fight, the NVA withdrew to the west side of a clearing oriented southeast to northwest, and the Airborne retired to the east. The battalion senior advisor, Red Hat Captain Jesse Myers overhead in a command-and-control helicopter called for artillery fire from FSB Oklahoma and asked Red Marker Control to divert some airstrikes to the enemy’s possible routes of withdrawal.

The artillery fire mission required extra caution. Only eighty meters separated the NVA on the west side of the clearing from the Airborne troopers on the east side. The standard safe distance from an 8-inch round with its 200 pounds of explosive was 100 meters for unsheltered personnel. A miscalculation could prove fatal. The howitzers’ alignment, elevation, and propellant charge had to be just right. The fire control center made its calculations and then double checked them. Then A Battery Commander, Captain Lee Hayden, double checked the “double check” by hand.[3] Myers watched the first shots land on target and gave the okay to fire for effect.

A Red Marker FAC arrived on scene and orbited to the east awaiting a set of fighters scrambled from Bien Hoa. Myers briefed the FAC and shut down the artillery when the fighters arrived. They bombed and napalmed the western tree line as darkness fell. The Airborne dug in for the night. Overnight, FSB Oklahoma stood ready if needed, but only sporadic small arms fire came from the opposite side of the clearing.

At dawn on the 24th, the NVA attacked in strength. The Airborne drove them back while suffering several killed and eight seriously wounded. Myers again called on the artillery at FSB Oklahoma and requested Red Markers direct some airstrikes on the NVA positions. Red Marker 16, Lieutenant David G. Blair, already in the air, diverted to the site to control immediate airstrikes aimed at possible routes of retreat. After the two Airborne companies secured the area, the Red Hats on the ground, Staff Sergeants Louis Clason and Michael Philhower, requested Medevac. Myers relayed the request to Brigade HQ and asked for gunship cover. The request went out to the 1st Air Cavalry’s Medevac and Blue Max gunship units at about 1100 hours.[4]

A Medevac helicopter piloted by “The Wild Deuce” (official call sign Medevac 2), First Lieutenant Stephen F. Modica, and a pair of Cobra gunships, Precise Swords 12 and 12A, received the requests for the evacuation mission.  Modica was en route from Phuoc Vinh to Katum when he got the call. Red Hat Sergeant First Class Louis Richard Rocco, happened to be on board hitching a ride to Katum. Rocco, a qualified medic and advisor to the Airborne’s Medical Battalion, sometimes volunteered to fly on Medevac missions. When Rocco heard Medevac 2 was going to pick up wounded paratroopers, he asked to stay on board and help. Modica landed at Katum, offloaded some supplies, and picked up a ceramic chest protector for Rocco. The Wild Deuce departed Katum toward the task force location.

Blue Max aircraft commanders First Lieutenant George Alexander Jr., Precise Sword 12, and Chief Warrant Officer–2 (CW2) Paul Garrity, Precise Sword 12A, were on Hot Alert at Quan Loi. They scrambled within the requisite two minutes from the time the alert horn sounded. Quan Loi Tower clear the flight of two to take off to the south. As Alexander and Garrity smoothly nosed over and headed down the runway, CW2 James “Bugs” Moran in the front seat of the lead ship radioed Blue Max operations on VHF for mission information.

“Blue Max ops, this is Precise Sword One Two airborne on scramble. Mission brief. Over.”

“Roger, Precise Sword Twelve. Mission is Medevac escort for pickup at XU5101 in a hot LZ. Depart Quan Loi heading 290 degrees, about seventeen klicks. Rendezvous with Medevac Two coming out of Katum.”

 “Roger, Blue Max. Copy all. Heading 290.”

Precise Sword flight tuned in Medevac’s standard frequency 33.00 FM and met The Wild Deuce on the way to the LZ. Meanwhile, Blair returned to Quan Loi for fuel and rockets while another FAC, most likely Lieutenant Byron Mayberry, Red Marker 19, arrived on scene with a flight of diverted fighter aircraft. Myers again shut down the artillery while the Red Marker directed more bombs into the western tree line. A few minutes after the airstrike finished, the trio of helicopters was several miles from the clearing. The Red Hats monitored the Medevac frequency awaiting contact. When Medevac 2 called in, Myers briefed them on the situation and suggested a run in from the south. Precise Sword 12  and the Wild Deuce descended to the deck two miles out. Precise Sword 12 A remained high to cover them both and give directions to the LZ.

“Medevac 2, hold this heading. I’ve got the clearing in sight about one klick. I’ve got green smoke on the eastern tree line.”

“Roger, Twelve Alpha. Got it.”

All Hell Broke Loose

The Wild Deuce and Precise Sword 12 came in low and fast just above the treetops. Modica wanted to give any North Vietnamese gunners only the briefest glimpse of the helicopter before setting down, loading wounded, and speeding away.

Red Hat Clason, advisor to the Vietnamese 63rd Airborne Infantry Company Lieutenant Hwang, stood in the clearing and watched green colored smoke spew from the smoke grenade he had popped. Behind the tree line, Philhower, advisor to 61stCompany commander Captain Nguyen Van Nghiem, manned the FM radio. They all heard the distinctive whup-whup-whup of the Huey’s blades well before it entered the clearing.

Lieutenant Hwang had stretcher bearers waiting outside the tree line with the seriously wounded troopers. Hwang and Clason waited tensely, hoping they could load the men without any trouble. Modica brought the ship into the clearing, lined up on Clason, and expertly flared for touchdown.

Just then, all hell broke loose. AK-47 and .51 caliber machine gun fire ripped into the cabin from the western tree line. The Cobra gunships responded immediately. They returned fire with 2.75-inch high explosive and flechette rockets, miniguns, and 40 mm grenade launchers, hoping to suppress the enemy fire long enough for Medevac 2 to complete its mission. The low bird turned hard to the left in front of The Wild Deuce to get lined up on the source of the fire. The high bird dove straight at the NVA positions unleashing a salvo of rockets. The Medevac’s door gunners opened up with their M-60 machine guns. Rocco fired his M-16 out the left door into the trees. Modica felt two enemy slugs glance off his “chicken plate” chest protector. At the same time, a third round shattered his left knee. The Medevac pancaked into the clearing. Copilot Lieutenant Leroy (Lee) G. Caubarreaux swiveled his head to give Modica some shit for such a bad landing before realizing Steve was hit. Lee immediately grabbed the controls. “I’ve got the ship!” he shouted over the intercom. As he pulled pitch and poured on full power, Caubarreaux jabbed the FM key, shouting now to the two Cobra gunships, “Precise Swords One Two and One Two Alpha, we are outta here! Cover us!”

Sergeant Clason hot-footed it out of the clearing as Medevac 2 spooled up and climbed toward safety. But safety was a long way off. Coming in hot and low to the clearing made the bird harder to hit. Liftoff was a different matter. The UH-1H helicopter took time to get back up to speed and out of the clearing. The NVA gunners got a clear view of the slow-moving Huey and unleashed everything they had. The entire western tree line lit up. From the left seat, Modica saw the RPM sliding past normal minimum and knew they were in trouble. He switched to VHF Guard channel and broadcast, “The Wild Deuce is going down! XU5101! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! XU5101!”[5]

At about 50 feet in the air, gunfire and aerodynamic stress ripped the tail boom from the ship.[6] The Huey spun out of control, crashing to the ground on its right side. Smoke billowed from the chopper as the fuel tanks burst into flame. In his C&C chopper, Myers watched in horror as the Medevac seemed to land, then shot almost straight up and fell to the ground on its side thrashing briefly like a wounded insect. He thought at first it had fallen on Clason.

In fact, Clason was not hurt — unlike the Medevac crew. Sergeant Gary L. Taylor, right side door gunner, died on impact, crushed by the aircraft. Medic SP5 Terry T. Burdette was badly burned and suffered multiple fractures. Crew chief and left door gunner, Sergeant Patrick Martin, was thrown clear and knocked unconscious. Rocco was also thrown clear, breaking a wrist and hip. Modica’s leg was shattered, and Caubarreaux suffered a crushed right shoulder, broken arm, and back injuries. He was trapped beneath Modica as the ship caught fire.

Precise Sword 12 lined up at low level to attack the tree line point blank with flechette rockets. Even before Alexander got lined up, Bugs Moran in the front seat swiveled the minigun under the Cobra’s chin, spraying the tree line. Meanwhile, Garrity with his copilot Warrant Officer (WO) James Nabours rolled in from above and plastered the tree line with rockets, minigun fire, and 40 mm grenades.[7] Both ships took numerous hits, but the Cobras pressed the attack. At one point, Moran asked George on the intercom, “Are we gonna die here?” Ignoring the tracers flying past, they made repeated head on passes into the NVA positions.[8]

When Medevac 2 hit the ground, Sergeant Philhower dropped the radio handset and sprinted toward the clearing, leaving Captain Myers overhead in the dark. Even without radio communication, Myers knew the paratroopers and Red Hats would try to get any survivors out of the downed bird. Lieutenant Hwang immediately sent a skirmish line of 63rd Company troopers forward to provide covering fire while Clason and Philhower approached the wreck and the Vietnamese got their injured away from the landing area and back in the tree line. The Blue Max gunships kept attacking the NVA positions as the Red Hats pulled survivors from the burning wreckage and helped them to the friendly tree line. Lieutenant Alexander noticed that one person getting people out of the burning Medevac “was not wearing Nomex – very odd for an aircrew.”[9] Myers informed FSB Oklahoma about the crisis in the clearing and asked for more artillery fire. The 8-inchers stepped up their fire on the western tree line, keeping the NVA’s head down. At one point each weapon had several rounds in the air at the same time. The enemy did not venture into the clearing in force.

Failed Rescue Attempts[10]

Modica’s Mayday call attracted numerous helicopters wanting to immediately pick up the injured crew and the wounded troopers. Precise Sword 12 escorted the first ship, call sign Killer Spade, as it approached the field. Intense ground fire erupted, repeatedly hitting the Huey, and Killer Spade aborted the attempt.[11] Meanwhile, back at Quan Loi, Captain Henry (“Hank”) O. Tuell, III, aircraft commander of Medevac 1, learned that the Wild Deuce was down. He shouted to his pilot Lieutenant Howard Elliott, who was in the shower at the time, “Get your butt in gear! We gotta go get Modica and his crew!” Elliott scrambled into his Nomex flight suit and boots. Tuell had the Huey cranked when Elliott arrived at the revetment still dripping soapy water.  Medevac 1 approached the clearing from the south, again escorted by Precise Sword 12, and took ground fire that wounded Tuell. Elliott took control and flew back to Quan Loi where Hank got medical attention. Meanwhile, Garrity notified Quan Loi they needed to launch the Cobra section sitting Blue Alert because this situation was not going to be resolved any time soon.

Lieutenant Thomas Read, Medevac 12, and his copilot Lieutenant Monty Halcomb were in the air 40 miles away northwest of Song Be when they heard the Mayday call. They sped toward the Fishhook and soon spotted the smoke rising from Medevac Meadow. They arrived just as Medevac 1 was taking hits and struggling to get out of the clearing.[12] At this point, Precise Swords 12 and 12A were low on fuel and completely out of ammo. The relief section of gunships led by CW2 Maurice A. “Mac” Cookson came on station to support subsequent rescue attempts. Cookson asked Alexander to mark the enemy position for him. Alexander replied, “No can do. I’m Winchester.[13] Just lower your nose toward that western tree line. The enemy will mark his position for you.” [14] Mac did as suggested, and a stream of tracers erupted toward his ship, precisely identifying the NVA locations. Mac responded with flechette rockets trailing their telltale red smoke. The Precise Sword flight limped their dinged Cobras to Quan Loi where maintenance grounded Alexander’s bird until they could install a new set of blades. Alexander pulled a slug from Garrity’s seat and presented it to him some years later preserved in an epoxy pyramid.

Cookson  and his wingman continued the attack on the NVA while Medevac 12 assessed their options. Read and Halcomb decided to approach over the friendlies in the eastern tree line instead of coming in from the south.[15] They came in just over the trees, made a right hand U-turn, and started down fast with their tail pointed at the NVA tree line. The NVA opened fire from the west and the north as Medevac 12 reached about 100 feet. The crew heard and felt the ship taking hits. The Huey began a severe vertical vibration at about fifty feet from the ground. Read aborted the descent, slowly climbed above the trees, and called, Mayday.” He set the wounded bird down in a clearing to the east and shut down the engine as CWO Raymond Zepp, Medevac 21, arrived on scene. Monty Halcomb jumped out of the Huey to assess the damage to their plane as Zepp landed close by to pick up the crew, if needed. Although there were numerous bullet holes in their ship and major damage to one rotor blade, Read and Halcomb decided to try to get it back to Quan Loi. They were successful, just barely. The ship went to the scrap heap a few days later, slung out under a Chinook.[16]

Medevac 21 took off from the clearing and flew back to the Meadow to make a fourth rescue attempt. However, Lieutenant Caubarreaux ordered him not to try. He said the LZ was too hot and there was no sense possibly losing another ship and another crew.[17] As the day ended, Medevac had lost three ships, one still smoldering in the Meadow and two heavily damaged – one that had to be scrapped. The crews of the two damaged birds had made it back to safety. But the injured crew of Medevac 2 and the wounded paratroopers would spend the night on the ground with no medical care except first aid.

Clason and Philhower were awarded the Silver Star for their actions. Vice President Agnew presented the awards at a ceremony shortly afterwards. Sergeant First Class Rocco was recognized several years later for rescuing survivors from the chopper and administering first aid before he became immobilized from his injuries.[18] He was awarded the Medal of Honor presented by President Gerald Ford in February 1974. The Medevac pilot and crew also received awards for bravery. Modica received a Silver Star and Caubarreaux, Taylor (posthumously), Burdette, and Martin each a Distinguished Flying Cross. Those were not the only awards conferred, for this engagement was far from over, but unbelievably, despite braving intense enemy fire in repeated head-on attacks, the gunship crews received no such awards.[19]

Jesse Myers knew what needed to happen next. The two Airborne companies had run into a buzz saw. But they had given better than they had gotten in return. They had a good defensive position and overwhelming artillery and air support. The only thing they did not have was mobility. Ideally, they would pull back and bring in a B-52 Arc Light mission to pound the enemy. But with the number of injured on hand, the paratroopers could not easily withdraw. They would not abandon their wounded, and they could not easily move them. They needed to hold their position until after a successful evacuation of casualties. Some of the enemy fire now came from the north and south sides of the clearing. The NVA may have been attempting to flank the two companies or at least be in position to score more hits on helicopters they knew would be coming. Myers adjusted the artillery to compensate.

Airstrikes

That afternoon, the Red Markers diverted more strike aircraft to Medevac Meadow, where Myers informed them of the expanded targets. For several hours, fighter aircraft bombed and strafed the enemy-held tree lines on the north, south, and west sides of the clearing. Red Marker 26, Lieutenant Lloyd L. Prevett, piloting an O-2A from Phuoc Vinh, flew 4.8 hours, his longest mission of the war. The twin engine O-2A had a rocket pod of seven rockets under each wing. During his mission, Prevett expended all fourteen smoke rockets, one at a time, marking different strike locations around the perimeter of Medevac Meadow. After running out of Willie Pete, he marked targets with smoke grenades tossed out of the pilot-side window. Prevett remembers controlling mostly F-100’s, with at least one flight of  A-37’s, and a few Vietnamese A-1E’s.  Prevett recalled:

“One interesting note is I requested a flight with wall-to-wall nape and 20 mm, figuring it would be a standard load of snake and nape.[20] I was shocked when a flight of two F -100’s showed up with just nape and 20mm. When I put them in, the nape uncovered a fortified bunker and of course, no snake to employ. Took care of that on the next flight. My hat is off to all the fighter pilots that showed up that day. They put their asses on the line to ensure each and every drop was right where it was needed. Gives me shivers today thinking about what everyone did to try and protect the guys on the ground.”[21]

Lloyd did not record the number of strikes he directed, but remembers being amazed on his way back to Phouc Vinh at the amount of grease pencil writing on the side window. He had scribbled on the plexiglass the standard info for each flight — mission number, call sign, number of fighters in the flight, ordnance load, expected time of arrival on scene, and bomb damage assessment. Given the number of strikes Prevett controlled, it is a wonder he saw anything through that window.

The O-2A could fly for more than six hours if conserving fuel with a lean mixture at cruise power setting. But directing airstrikes with the mixture rich and power often “balls to the wall” for almost five hours, Prevett’s O-2 was near minimum fuel when he landed at Phuoc Vinh. The crew chief refueled and rearmed the Skymaster, cleaned the inside of the window, and the detailed record of those strike missions was lost to history.

Radio operator Sergeant Jim Yeonopolus manned Red Marker Control outside the Airborne Tactical Operations Center at Quan Loi. He remembers the firefight became more hectic about 1500, when the FACs called for additional airstrikes. As daylight faded, the fighting became more intense. Earlier, Red Hat Sergeants John A. Brubaker and James H. Collier asked Yeonopolus if he would accompany them to the Meadow and stay on the ground overnight to call in air support if needed. Jim told them he would be more effective with his full set of radios at Quan Loi. Brubaker and Collier did not make it into Medevac Meadow.

Until nightfall, Red Markers continued to direct airstrikes into the enemy positions. Lieutenant Gary Willis, Red Marker 18, in his Bird Dog controlled two more F-100 flights just before dark. According to Captain Myers, the Red Markers directed 36 tactical air sorties during two days at Medevac Meadow.[22]  Myers saw one FAC make low passes to drop canisters of water to the Red Beret troopers who had not been resupplied for two days. Most of the containers missed the mark or burst upon landing, but some made it into the perimeter intact.[23] Early the next morning, the Medevac crew chief and copilot retrieved from the destroyed Huey a few glass bottles of saline solution that survived the wreck and fire.[24]

Overnight, artillery support from Oklahoma became even more important. The NVA attacked the Airborne position three times during the night and were repulsed each time. The Proud Americans at Oklahoma responded with precise artillery fire, sometimes extremely close to the eastern tree line. Many of those gunners had not slept much during the last 48 hours. The Red Hats also called on flare ships and Air Force gunships to help defend the Airborne position.

A Rescue Plan

Myers returned to the 6th Battalion’s command post at FSB Oklahoma, monitoring the situation on the ground via the radio net. At the firebase, he received a surprise visit from Lieutenant General Michael S. Davison, II Field Force Commander, who asked simply, “What do you need, Captain?” Myers replied, “Sir, I need a B-52 strike.” Davison said, “You’ve got it.” The general left and ordered an Arc Light mission for 1500 hours the next day.

Brigadier General Robert M. Shoemaker flew in later to be briefed on the situation. Shoemaker was a principal architect of airmobile warfare concepts and an experienced helicopter pilot. He flew his own command and control chopper throughout his tour.[25] Shoemaker listened to all the information about the condition of the wounded (there were now about 40 casualties), the resupply situation, and the ability of the troopers to hold on. He vowed to round up additional resources and return in the morning with a plan.

Overnight at Quan Loi, the 15th Med and Blue Max created a plan that met Shoemaker’s approval. The 15th lost so many aircraft damaged or destroyed the first day, it borrowed several Dust Off Hueys for non-combat missions.[26] That freed up enough Medevac birds to send four on the rescue – three as primary and one as backup. Blue Max committed six gunships to the mission, half the entire C Battery fleet.

Early the next day, Shoemaker flew into FSB Oklahoma to brief the Airborne and the artillery commanders on the plan. Also attending the briefing were the commander of the Medevac birds and a major representing Blue Max command, each in his own helicopter. After a fifteen minute briefing, the three left to rendezvous at Medevac Meadow with the Hueys and Cobras coming from Quan Loi. An additional command and control helicopter carried Lieutenant Colonel Truong Vinh Phuoc, Vietnamese 6th Battalion commander; Battalion Senior Advisor Captain Myers; Captain Hayden, commander of A Battery, 2nd of the 32nd Field Artillery at FSB Oklahoma; and the Vietnamese artillery commander. General Shoemaker flew his own Huey in overall control.[27]

Beginning at 0930, Red Markers directed a series of strikes into the perimeter of Medevac Meadow controlled by the well-bunkered NVA. As the airstrikes ended at 1100, the fleet of fourteen helicopters arrived on station. According to Myers’s description:[28]

“The plan was for the LZ to be ringed by Arty fire, friendly troops, and gunship suppressive fire. After we were airborne, we first adjusted the Arty. There were two ARVN 105mm How batteries, an ARVN 155 mm How battery, and the American 8-inch battery.[29] The prep was fired and the wood line was smoked[30] and then the extraction was started. Arty fires were not shut down, but shifted to form a corridor through which the Medevac ships were to fly. The gunships formed a continuous “daisy chain” whereby suppressive fire was kept on the area of greatest enemy concentration.”

After the artillery adjustment, Shoemaker flew his chopper at low level the length of the field to check the safety of the corridor before clearing the gunships and Medevac birds to proceed.[31] The plan worked almost to perfection. CW2 Mac Cookson led the flight of six Blue Max Cobras spaced out to keep continuous fire on the NVA. The three primary Medevacs came in, loaded up and took off in sequence. The first two made it out of the clearing without any damage. CW2 Richard Tanner, Medevac 24, came in first and picked up the surviving crew of Medevac 2 at about 1115. Captain Jack Roden, Medevac 7, landed second and took off with most of the wounded paratroopers. The third ship, Medevac 25 commanded by CW2 William Salinger picked up the last few wounded paratroopers but was hit heavily taking off. His ship sank back to the ground and caught fire. Before the backup bird flown by CW2 Denny Schmidt, Medevac 23, and his copilot Monty Halcomb could react,  another Huey dropped into Medevac Meadow beside the burning ship. Salinger and his crew shuttled the wounded Vietnamese aboard the rescue bird, and they safely exited the hot LZ. No one knows for sure who flew that unidentified Huey.[32]

Several days later, General Shoemaker presented “impact” awards to some of the rescue participants in a ceremony at Bien Hoa Air Base.[33] One recipient was Cobra aircraft commander CW2 Mac Cookson. Mac received a Silver Star for his contribution to the fight. Nineteen days later, General Shoemaker received the same award. At FSB Oklahoma, commander of the Vietnamese Airborne Division General Dong presented a Cross of Gallantry to Captain Hayden and to Lieutenant Granberg for the excellent work by their 8-inch battery. Red Marker Radio Operator Jim Yeonopolus was also awarded a Cross of Gallantry recognizing his work during the engagement.

Back in the Fight

Relieved of their serious casualties, the Airborne companies withdrew a couple of klicks to the southeast. Resupply choppers soon arrived with food, water, ammo, and medical supplies. At 1500 hours, the promised Arc Light mission hit the west side of Medevac Meadow. A light helicopter flew over later to assess the damage. Surviving NVA drove it off with ground fire but not before the pilot saw numerous dead and a lot of destroyed concrete bunkers. While there is no official estimate of enemy casualties, the NVA must have suffered tremendous losses given the facts. They made four frontal assaults across the open meadow into the dug-in Airborne position. The artillery units at FSB Oklahoma poured extremely accurate fire into the NVA tree line. Air Force fighters bombed and strafed the NVA bunkers with 36 sorties during the two days. Blue Max Cobras flew at least 30 sorties expending rockets, minigun, and 40 mm grenades into the NVA position. The B-52 Arc Light mission dropped 81 tons of explosives.

The 61st and 63rd Airborne Companies swept the area the next day capturing weapons, signal equipment, and some wounded combatants. Some of those were in a hospital complex. The two companies continued to battle in the Fishhook until withdrawn with the rest of 6th Battalion on 25 June. At that point, each company had about 40 effectives remaining of their original 100 troopers. The engagement at Medevac Meadow impressed Myers in a number of ways, as he wrote in his letter to U.S. Army Aviation Digest:

“I saw time and again the courage and concern of one pilot on behalf of another. I saw outstanding teamwork between ARVN and American forces, between air and ground forces, and between combat and combat support forces. I saw magnificent employment of air/ground coordination to provide massed fires. I saw commanders all the way up to the three-star level who were vitally interested and concerned for the welfare of their men and who were willing to get personally involved to remedy a bad situation. And finally, I saw raw courage and heroism displayed time and time again by U.S. and ARVN soldiers alike.”[34]


[1] The description of the following event is based on numerous sources, some of which contain conflicting detail: Dust Off: Army Aeromedical Evacuation in Vietnam by Peter Dorland and James Nanney; magazine article by then Captain Stephen F. Modica, U.S. Army Aviation Digest, June 1975; letter written by former Red Hat Major Jesse W. Myers in response to that article; emails among various surviving participants including Jerry Granberg and Ralph Jones (artillerymen), Patrick Martin (Medevac crew chief), Major (R) Jesse Myers, Monty Halcomb (Medevac pilot), Major (R) George Alexander, former CW2 Paul Garrity, and CW3 (R) Mac Cookson (Cobra pilots); Oral History and other statements by Warrant Officer Rocco; mission statements by Alexander and Garrity, by Henry Tuell (Medevac pilot); various reports of awards and citations/orders related to same; and other sources as individually footnoted.

[2] Grid Coordinates XU425098, per the History of the “Proud Americans” at ­­­­ https://proudamericans.homestead.com/VIETNAM_1963-1971-1.pdf

[3] Emails July 2021, former Lieutenant Jerry Granberg, second in command, A Battery, 2nd of the 32nd Field Artillery.

[4] Medevac Platoon, 15th Medical Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Division, and C Battery, 2nd Battalion Aerial Rocket Artillery, 20th Artillery Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Division.

[5] The grid coordinates Modica screamed into the mike designated a one-kilometer square of territory about five miles inside the Fishhook north of Tay Ninh Province, South Vietnam. In an article Modica wrote for the magazine U.S. Army Aviation Digest, he incorrectly stated the coordinates as XU5606, which is right on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam rather than five miles inside. Chalk that up to the “Fog of War” and frailty of human memory. Interestingly, “5606” is the designation of the hydraulic fluid used in the Huey, which might explain why the number came to Modica’s mind while writing from memory about five years later. According to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots’ Association, XU507010 is the six digit grid coordinate for the downed Medevac, tail number 69-15121.

[6] Precise Sword 12, Lt Alexander did not see the tail boom break away, but did notice that the tail rotor was not operating as te Wild Deuce tried to climb.

[7] Another Cobra pilot, WO Brian Russ, claims to have been flying Precise Sword 12 with Alexander in the front seat. Aircraft commander Alexander disputes that claim. Cobra commanders Garrity and Cookson also believe that Russ was not involved in the mission.

[8] Rocco’s oral history recorded in 1987 testifies to the volume of fire. The crew does not believe they would have gotten safely to the tree line without the protection of the Blue Max Cobras. The damage inflicted on the helicopters speaks for itself.

[9] Statement by George Alexander, in possession of the author. That person could have been Red Hat Rocco, Clason, or Philhower, who all wore camouflage fatigues. Modica and Caubbareaux wrote that Rocco pulled then from the wreckage.

[10] Details of the failed rescue attempts are primarily from several sources:

[11] Killer Spade was the unit call sign used by B Company, 229th Aviation Battalion (Assault Helicopter), part of the 1st Cavalry Division

[12] Emails and telecon, Jan 2022, with Cecil M. (Monty) Halcomb, former Captain, USA pilot on Medevac 12, later aircraft commander of Medevac 8.

[13] Winchester – flyers slang for “out of ammo.”

[14] A basic rule of modern warfare – “Tracers work both ways.” Tracers help a gunner see how close the gunfire is to the target, but they reveal the gunner’s exact position.

[15] Jesse Myers recalls advising Medevac 12 to make such an approach. Monty Halcomb does not remember that communication.

[16] Halcomb telecom. Also, Joe Baugher’s Serial Number website lists UH-1H tail number 69-15139 as written off on 26 May 1970. That may have been Medevac 12. http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_serials/1969.html

[17] From Halcomb. Lee used Modica’s survival radio to communicate with Zepp.

[18] From the Citation to accompany the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to Warrant Officer (then Sergeant First Class) Louis Richard Rocco.

[19] The Blue Max aircraft commanders, Lt. Alexander and CW2 Garrity were recommended for the Silver Star, but that paperwork was lost. To date, each has been awarded an Air Medal with V device for Valor. Attempts to upgrade the awards to Silver Stars have been denied.

[20] Snake and Nape – Air Force slang for High-drag bombs (“Snake”) and Napalm (Nape”), a standard ordinance load for situations with troops in contact.

[21] Emails with Colonel Lloyd Prevett, USAF (Ret), Dec 2020.

[22] Most of those strikes were controlled by Red Markers Dave Blair and Byron Mayberry (both now deceased) and Lloyd Prevett.

[23] The FAC who made these drops is unknown. None of the surviving Red Markers or crew chiefs remember such a mission. Medevac pilot Monty Halcomb recalls a sector FAC, call sign Rod 15, who flew from Quan Loi as being the one involved. The Rod FACs supported the 5th Vietnamese Infantry Division, a unit not involved in the Fishhook operation. However, if Rod 15 were in the air, he would have heard the Mayday call and could have learned of the plight of the men on the ground. The author continues the search for Rod 15.

[24] Emails, Jan-Jul 2021, former Sergeant Patrick Martin, crew chief on Medevac 2, Medevac Platoon, 15th Medical Battalion.

[25] Lieutenant General (R ) H.G. “Pete” Taylor, telephone interviews, January 2021.

[26] The borrowed helicopters were from the 45th Medical Company, Air Ambulance, out of Long Binh.

[27] Shoemaker logged 14.3 hours flying time on 25 May 1970 per Individual Flight Record, DA Form 759-1, Archives Texas A & M University – Central Texas

[28] From Myers’s letter to U.S. Army Aviation Digest, undated but shortly after June 1975.

[29] Myers does not know the location of the Vietnamese batteries engaged in this effort. The Vietnamese had their own forward observers and controlled their own batteries.

[30] With white phosphorous shells to screen the evacuation flight path

[31] Per General Order Number 2605, Award of the Silver Star Medal (First Oak Leaf Cluster) to Brigadier General Robert M. Shoemaker, 13 June 1970. The first award of the Silver Star and of a Distinguished Flying Cross to then Colonel Shoemaker came in 1965 as a Battalion Commander with the 12th Cavalry Regiment.

[32] No one to date has been able to identify the Huey that picked up the people from Medevac 25. Participants agree it was not the Medevac commander’s Huey. They also agree it was not C Battery commander Major Donald Eugene “Gene” Wilson, because C Battery has no aircraft except Cobras. It might have been the Huey that carried the Bule Max command representative – someone from battalion headquarters at Phuoc Vinh. It might have been one of the ships from the 1st Cavalry Division’s Assault Helicopter Company, call sign Killer Spade. It is a mystery.

[33] A so-called impact award did not go through the normal steps requiring recommendation, review and approval. An appropriate authority could grant such an award to give immediate recognition for actions that had a significant impact on a battle or mission.

[34] Myers letter.

Honoring the Blighters in the Trenches

Instead of genealogy, I have been working on the 2nd edition of my book about the Air Force unit with which I served in Vietnam. That detachment of forward air controllers – call sign Red Marker – supported an elite group of American and Vietnamese soldiers. I am publishing this first chapter of the book in honor of those people on the ground. That seems appropriate  because tomorrow is the 246th birthday of the United States Army. So here is a snappy salute from Red Marker 18 to those whom Snoopy called the “poor blighters in the trenches.”

_______________

THE CAMBODIAN INCURSION

Before dawn on the 1st of May 1970, two C-130B Hercules aircraft from the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing rumbled down the runway at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base and roared into the night sky. They turned out of traffic and headed west toward the Fishhook region of Cambodia.

Two hours earlier, crews from the 14th Aerial Port Squadron, using cranes and muscle power, loaded a 15,000-pound bomb into a cradle on a rolling pallet. They shoved the four-and-a-half-foot diameter, eleven-foot long behemoth nose first up the tailgate ramp and into the belly of each C-130. On board the aircraft, personnel from the 2nd Detachment, 834th Air Division rigged the Commando Vault bomb for deployment, attaching a drogue parachute pack and static lines to the tail of the bomb. Ordinance specialists installed the complex fusing … an extended fuse on a three-foot pipe attached to the nose of the bomb and a tail fuse that would trigger simultaneously, or serve as a backup if the nose fuse failed.[1] With this massive piece of ordinance locked in place, the pilots took off and climbed toward 20,000 feet at 180 knots.

Approaching Dalat, the navigator on each plane contacted a precision radar site known as MSQ-77.[2] The controller at the site gave each a heading direct to a target coordinate in the Fishhook, which the navigators repeated to the pilots over the aircraft intercom. Controllers at Dalat fed into their computers the desired aircraft airspeed and altitude, the ordinance ballistics, and target location with its reported wind direction, wind speed, and atmospheric temperature. From this data, the computer calculated when and where to release the bomb to hit within a ten-meter square target. The controllers directed the navigators to the required airspeed, altitude, and heading, and monitored their progress, issuing corrections as needed. As the aircraft cleared the 6,500 foot mountainous terrain of II Corps and approached Song Be, the controllers directed them to slow to 150 knots and descend gradually to 8,000 feet above the rice paddies of III Corps.

Instant Landing Zones

Six minutes prior to the scheduled 0630 drop, the controller advised the navigator to prepare to drop. In response, the loadmaster in each plane lowered the rear loading ramp and released one of two cargo locks holding the pallet in place. On the controller’s signal 30 seconds prior to the drop, the co-pilot remotely deployed the slotted 24-foot drogue parachute attached to the tail of the bomb. The chute fluttered out the open ramp and inflated in the slip stream of the aircraft. The navigator repeated over the intercom the controller’s count down, “Five, four, three, two, one, Mark!” at which point the loadmaster released the second cargo lock. The trailing parachute pulled the skid from the plane. The pilots advanced full throttle as the enormous explosive fell in a silent arc through the sky, stabilized by the drogue parachute. The bomb took 26 seconds  to reach the ground from 8,000 feet. A brush deflector on the extended fuse penetrated the jungle canopy without triggering the bomb. The C-130 was about a mile away when the bomb disintegrated just above the ground in a blinding flash of light and heat. The force of the blast vaporized surrounding vegetation and created a mushroom cloud that blossomed six thousand feet in the air. The crew in each plane heard the explosion and felt the concussive shock wave. The pilots then made a climbing turn toward home.

The first bomb landed very near the Vietnam/Cambodian border at XU552012.[3] The second exploded on its target several klicks to the west.[4] Each created an instant Landing Zone (LZ) soon to be assaulted by Vietnamese Airborne troopers.

There were no casualties from the two explosions. Two hours earlier, B-52 Arc Light missions began pounding the southern Fishhook, dropping 81 tons of bombs from each three-ship cell.[5] One hour behind the B-52s, 8-inch and 175 millimeter artillery from the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery Regiment took over the pre-invasion bombardment, firing from bases along the northern border of Tay Ninh Province. The 105 and 155 millimeter howitzers of an artillery battalion of the Vietnamese Airborne Division poured in shells from Katum.  By the time the Commando Vault “instant Landing Zone” bombs had dropped, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong had long since taken shelter.[6]

Shortly thereafter, three battalions of Vietnamese airborne infantry air assaulted into the new landing zones. At the same time, the American 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment stormed across the southern border of the Fishhook with the mechanized forces of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry Division on their left flank. Later, the Vietnamese 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment rolled across the eastern Fishhook boundary. All were part of Task Force Shoemaker in an operation known as the Cambodian Incursion. Brigadier General Robert M. Shoemaker, Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Air Cav, created the plan to attack the NVA/VC sanctuary in the Fishhook to destroy their basecamps, supplies, and the enemy. Under his plan, the Vietnamese Airborne landed in the new LZs about six klicks north of  the American forces and began ground sweeps. The Americans passed through the Vietnamese positions on Day Two and continued driving to the north. It all began with creating and securing the LZs.

Red Marker Crew Chiefs

As the C-130s dropped their payloads, two Red Marker Forward Air Controllers (FACs) supporting the Vietnamese Airborne Division took off in their O-1E Bird Dogs from Quan Loi, east of the Fishhook. Red Marker crew chiefs Sergeant Jim Stokes and Airman 1st Class Jim Hoppe rolled out of their bunks at 0500, grabbed a cup of coffee at the mess hall, and drove a Jeep to the flight line. The night before, they tied down six Bird Dogs in three steel revetments. If a mortar round landed in one revetment, hopefully the planes in adjacent enclosures would escape damage. They found their planes safe and by the headlights of the Jeep moved two aircraft out of one revetment. The lightweight Bird Dog was easy to move. Each man pulled a retractable hand-hold, a steel tube, from the side of the rear fuselage in front of the horizontal stabilizer. They picked the tailwheel off the asphalt and rolled the O-1 forward on its main gear, maneuvered it into position for startup, and placed wooden chocks in front and behind the main wheels.

Before they bedded down the planes the previous night, Hoppe and Stokes topped off the fuel tanks. With one boot on a wing strut and the other on a footstep below the engine cowling, the crew chiefs opened the fuel filler caps on the top of each wing and pumped in high octane Avgas.[7] This morning, the chiefs rechecked the fuel level in each plane and used the push-valve under the wings to drain the fuel sump on each tank. Overnight, water vapor in the tanks condensed into a small amount of water. The lighter gasoline floated on top, and water collected in the tanks’ sump. Draining the sump ensured no water found its way to the engine. As a double check, pilots also drained the sump on their preflight check.

The crew chiefs checked the oil level in the planes, refilling as necessary, and left the engine cowling unlatched so the pilots could take a quick look at the engine before buttoning up. The Bird Dog was pretty easy to maintain. About the biggest pain in the butt for the crew chiefs was changing oil. And that was only a pain because they had to catch the first oil out of the crankcase in a small test tube. Invariably, the oil went everywhere besides the tube. However, this messy step was vital. A lab at Bien Hoa Air Base tested the captured oil for minute metal filings that warned of abnormal engine wear and potential failure.

Stokes and Hoppe then loaded white phosphorous rockets into the four tubes under each wing, installing red-ribboned safety pins in each tube. The pins held spring-loaded electrical contacts away from the ignitor on the tail of each rocket, preventing inadvertent firing. As the crew chiefs finished their tasks, First Lieutenants Dave Blair, Red Marker 16, and Lanny Mayberry, Red Marker 19, arrived to preflight the plane each would fly.

Red Marker FACs

First Lieutenant Terry Weaver, Red Marker 17, was the most experienced O-1 Forward Air Controller in the unit. Logically, he could have flown one of the first cross-border sorties. However, Terry was “short,” with less than a month to complete his tour in Vietnam. Major Bob Drawbaugh, the detachment’s commander and the Air Liaison Officer for the Vietnamese Airborne put Weaver in the second group of sorties. His decision may have been influenced by the unknown amount of air defenses they might encounter. The previous night, Drawbaugh gave his FACs a multi-page list of reported enemy antiaircraft sites. The FACs dutifully marked the locations on their maps with a “donut” … a pencil dot with a circle around it. The enemy often built an emplacement for their .51 caliber and larger weapons that from the air looked like a donut. They dug a circular trench a few feet deep, leaving the middle of the circle untouched at ground level. The gunners set the tripod of their weapon on the center section and stood in the circular trench. By moving around the circle, they could aim the gun up and in a 360 degree arc. When the FACs finished marking their maps, the Cambodian border was solid gray with penciled circles.

Instead of Weaver, Drawbaugh scheduled Blair and Mayberry, the next most experienced, to fly the first sorties of the invasion. The two wore camouflage fatigues with their name, rank, and pilot wings embroidered in black. A cloth tape above their left pocket read US AIR FORCE in black block letters. The uniforms bore the insignia of the Vietnamese Airborne, the division patch on the left shoulder … a red square with an eagle and a parachute canopy in the middle, and the sword of St. Michael patch on the left breast pocket … a white sword clenched in a yellow-gold winged fist. The FACs also wore the unit’s distinctive red beret. Local tailors had modified their uniforms slightly. They added two zippered pockets to the trousers on the outside of the lower legs. An O-1 checklist fit comfortably in one. The other held a pair of flight gloves when the FAC was not flying, and his red beret when he was in the air. The tailors added three small slotted pockets on the left shoulder that held grease pencils and a ball point pen, and a pocket on the right shoulder for a pack of cigarettes and a Zippo lighter.

FAC Gear

Each FAC slung a CAR-15 rifle over his shoulder and wore a web belt carrying a holstered .38 caliber revolver, leather pouches of extra ammo, a sheathed hunting knife, and a canteen of water. They stashed the rifle in their assigned aircraft, securing the barrel to a clasp on the right side of the cockpit. They draped a bandolier of loaded 5.56 mm magazines over the muzzle of the gun and retrieved their helmets, parachutes, and survival vests from the secure Conex in the revetment.[8] Each put the helmet and parachute on the seat of his plane, donning the vest. It contained a UHF radio, extra batteries, a flashlight, a first aid kit, a map printed on silk, and an emergency ration of high protein bars. The vest also held the airman’s emergency bailout knife. This orange-handled knife had a U-shaped blade with the cutting edge on the inside of the curve. The FACs carried the knife in the vest with the curved blade open. They could use it to cut parachute shroud lines if the lines tangled on bailout or hung up in a tree. At least, that was the theory. An emergency bailout from 1,500 feet above the ground with a manually opened parachute did not give a lot of time to deal with fouled shroud lines before hitting the ground. The knife also had a three-inch blade that opened with a push-button … yes, FACs carried a switch-blade. Several feet of para-cord secured the knife to the vest. The cord was long enough that the FAC could reach above his head to cut the parachute shroud lines. If the FAC dropped the knife while trying to use it, it would not fall to the ground.

Each FAC also had a bulky flak jacket that could be worn under the survival vest. Blair and Mayberry chose like most to sit on the flak vest, hoping it provided extra protection from ground fire. The last thing they loaded into the front cabin was a cloth map case containing a series of 1:24,000 topographic maps of the area of operations. These maps were overprinted with the 10,000 meter squares of the UTM Coordinate grid system as well as regular latitude and longitude. Fast moving fighter-bombers, B-52s, and cargo planes had fancy electronic systems and radar for navigation. However, the UTM grid system was the common denominator for locating and communicating positions among all other elements on the battlefield — ground troops, artillery units, helicopters and FACs.

After Blair and Mayberry completed the preflight inspection of their respective plane, they climbed into the cockpit, strapped on the parachute that was sitting in the seat, and buckled the seatbelt and shoulder harness. Meanwhile, the crew chiefs closed and latched the engine cowling. Each FAC removed his red beret, stuck it into the leg pocket of his fatigues, put on his flight gloves and OD Green ballistic helmet with a boom mike, and plugged the mike cord into the Bird Dog’s intercom/radio system. The FACs confirmed all switches were off and placed their hands in sight, gripping the support braces above the glare shield. Once the crew chiefs saw the pilots could not accidentally arm a rocket, Stokes and Hoppe pulled the safety pins from the rocket launchers and handed the red streamers and pins to each FAC through his open cockpit window. The windows in the front cabin were large rectangles, about 24” wide by 18” high, and were hinged at the top. Both could swing outward and snap to the underside of the wing on each side of the plane. That was the normal configuration when flying in the heat of southern Vietnam. When lowered, the windows were excellent writing surfaces for grease pencil notes.

The crew chiefs stood by with wheeled fire extinguishers as the FACs turned on the battery, adjusted the throttle and mixture levers, shouted “Switches On, Prop Clear,” and cranked the starter.  The propellor moved in fits and starts for a few seconds as the starter whined its typical grinding sound. The engine fired up in a belch of smoke and an unmuffled roar that settled into a muted puttering. The FACs checked oil pressure, engine rpm, and all instruments and radios.

With their engines running smoothly, Blair and Mayberry in turn contacted Quan Loi Tower for permission to taxi. Hoppe and Stokes pulled the chocks as the FACs signaled they were ready to go. Trading a salute with their crew chiefs, each taxied carefully toward the takeoff end of the runway in the predawn light. The chiefs headed back to the mess hall for a quick breakfast before returning to the flight line to roll two more O-1s out for the next sorties. On the taxiway, Blair and Mayberry paused to runup the engine to full power while holding the brakes. They checked that both the right and left magneto were functioning and all engine instruments were normal. With flaps set at 30 degrees, each rolled onto the runway individually, advanced the throttle, held it full open with their left hand, and took off. As they climbed above the ground fog and jungle mist clinging to the treetops, they retracted the flaps, turned west, and headed toward the site of one of the Commando Vault explosions.

The FACs were glad to be off the ground. Even before dawn, the temperature rarely got below 80 degrees in III Corps. With humidity at 80-90%, they were miserable and sweating profusely. Flying at 1,500 feet might have only been 5 degrees cooler, but with the windows snapped up and the wind whistling through the cockpit, they were much more comfortable. The breeze through the cabin, however, did only so much good. Sweat soaked the back of their camo blouse and seat of their pants within minutes. Likewise, the crew chiefs had been working in t-shirts but were dripping wet by the time the FACs got in the air.

Red Marker Control/Radio Operators

Once airborne, each FAC checked in with Red Marker Control on a designated VHF radio frequency. Red Marker radio operators, Sergeants Walter Stepaniak and Jim Yeonopolus, were on duty to take the call. Red Marker O-1s carried six radios, two each VHF, FM, and UHF sets. The FACs monitored three radios at a time and switched among the sets to transmit as necessary. They remained in contact with Marker Control on one VHF radio. They used an FM radio to communicate with the American advisors in the field with the Airborne troops. They talked to fighter aircraft and controlled airstrikes using the UHF radios. Red Marker Control had those same radios plus a long distance HF set to contact the Direct Air Support Center at Bien Hoa. Their radios were mounted on a pallet in an M-108 Jeep. Their radios ran off the Jeep’s electrical system or a portable generator trailered behind the Jeep.

Major Drawbaugh was stationed in the Tactical Operations Center at Quan Loi beside the command staff of the 3rd Vietnamese Airborne Brigade and its American advisors in Team 162, known as Red Hats. General Shoemaker had designated Quan Loi as the headquarters of his Task Force, the units under his command, and the supporting FAC detachments. Therefore, Red Markers, Rash FACs supporting the 1st Air Cav, and Nile FACs supporting the 11th ACR all established radio control operations there. Normally, the operators dismounted the radios from their Jeep and installed the pallet in the ops center. Due to space limitations in this instance, they parked the Jeeps outside.  After hooking the radios to the portable generator and erecting antennae, they were in operation.

Red Marker Control monitored the FACs’ communications, including those with the Red Hat advisors on the ground. By knowing what was happening, experienced operators anticipated the need for additional airstrikes and even the ordinance  required. They sometimes initiated a request to the Air Support Center for another flight of strike aircraft before the FAC or the Red Hats asked for one.

Enroute to the Commando Vault sites, Blair and Mayberry took time to square away their cockpits for action. They climbed to 1500 feet, set the power at 100 knots cruise speed (115 mph), and trimmed the O-1 for level flight. They leaned the fuel mixture to conserve gas and prevent fouling the sparkplugs. They would reset the mixture to full rich before maneuvering to control an airstrike. They pulled a grease pencil from the pocket on their left shoulder and drew a line on the windscreen at the horizon. That line became the horizontal crosshair of their “personal” rocket sight. The vertical crosshair was a metal rod about 18 inches long welded to the engine cowling right behind the propellor. This rudimentary arrangement was remarkably accurate.

Each pulled out the map for his area and identified several land-marks that ensured he was headed in the right direction. They both breathed a sigh of relief as they crossed into Cambodia with no shots fired from the gray-marked border. Each FAC had marked on the map the Com-mando Vault location plus the coordinates of several preplanned airstrikes he would direct around the perimeter of the LZ. He clipped the map in place to his checklist strapped to one knee. He closed one of the cabin windows and wrote in grease pencil the basic data about each preplanned flight – the scheduled time of arrival, mission number, fighter call sign, number and type of aircraft, number and type of ordinance, and target coordinates. A typical grease pencil entry might look like this:

0700/5323/Dog 75/2 A-37

8 Mk-82/XU522044[9]

After completing the notes on the window, each FAC had time to locate his LZ and survey the surrounding terrain. Mayberry had time for a cigarette. Blair did not smoke.

The Air Plan

A few minutes before 0700 when they expected their first preplanned set of fighters, each FAC got a call on UHF from “Head Beagle,” an airborne traffic controller.

Red Marker One Six, this is Head Beagle. Over.”

“Head Beagle, this is Marker One Six. Go ahead.”

 “One Six are you ready for your Zero Seven Hundred fighters?”

 “Affirmative, Head Beagle. Send them on.”

 The Air Liaison Officer for the 1st Air Cavalry Division, Lt. Colonel  “Doc” Daugherty, call sign Rash 01, created the Air Plan for the invasion. Because of the high volume of anticipated fighter traffic and a separate area of operation for each ground unit and its FACs, he established the airborne controller and three rendezvous points for fighter aircraft outside the immediate battle area. On the way to their designated rendezvous, each set of fighters contacted Head Beagle who gave them an orbit altitude. Head Beagle then checked with the assigned FAC to confirm he was ready for the fighters. If so, Head Beagle released the fighters giving them general directions to find their FAC circling low over the jungle. If the FAC could not use the fighters, for example, because of weather in the area, Head Beagle diverted them to another FAC at another target.[10]

Airstrikes

Head Beagle released the 0700 sets of fighters for both Blair and Mayberry on time, and they soon spotted the FACs’ white-winged Bird Dogs above the green jungle background. For the next hour the FACs directed bombing runs from several sets of fighters into the tree lines surrounding the landing zones. Radio communication began with fighter lead contacting the FAC on a pre-assigned UHF frequency.

“Red Marker One Six, this is Dog Seven Five checking in.”

 “Roger, Dog Seven Five. I am at fifteen hundred feet, south of our target area. Do you have me in sight?”

 “Roger, Red Marker, have you in sight. Are you ready for my line up?”

 “Ready to copy, Dog Lead. Go ahead.”

 “This is Dog Seven Five, flight of two A-37s with eight Mk-82 slicks and 7.62 millimeter cannon. We have 20 minutes time on target before bingo fuel.”

 “Dog Seven Five, copy all. Our target is a tree line on the north side of the landing zone blasted out of the trees. Target elevation is about 100 feet. I want you to run in east to west and break to the south. I will orbit south of the target. Nearest friendlies are six klicks to the south, and that is your safest bailout area. Let’s drop in pairs, and I will see if there is anything that can use a strafing run. I have encountered no ground fire. Do you copy?”

 “Roger, Red Marker. Copy all. Run in to the west and break left. Ready for your mark.”

 “Roger, hold for my mark.”

Dog flight took up an orbit at about 3,500 feet. The fighters spaced themselves so they were on opposite sides of a large oval pattern. They were well outside the tight figure-eight pattern Blair flew below them.

Blair eyed the target out of his left window. He cut the power to idle and pulled back the stick bringing the O-1 into a 45 degree climb as he reached overhead with his left hand and armed one of the eight rockets.[11] As the airspeed bled off, he rolled to the left, kicked in some rudder, and with the wings 90 degrees to the horizon dropped the Bird Dog’s nose below the target. He leveled the wings and pulled the nose up, centering the target on the vertical rod/front sight.

Blair continued to raise the nose of the plane until the target reached the horizontal crosshair — that grease pencil mark on the windscreen. He eased off a little backpressure to hold the target in the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger on the control stick. An electric current fired the selected rocket motor with a muffled bang.

At that point, the O-1 was in a 35 degree dive, airspeed had climbed back to 100 knots, and the aircraft was in perfect trim. While the rocket swooshed toward the target, Blair pulled the nose up and added full throttle, turning into his figure-eight orbit at 1,500 feet. The white phosphorous warhead ignited on impact, and pure white smoke billowed from the trees.

 “Red Marker, this is Dog Lead. I have your mark.”

 “Dog Lead, roger. Drop in pairs. You are cleared in hot. Hit my smoke.”

“Roger that. Dog Lead is in hot”

As the Super Tweet made a diving left turn onto his bomb run, Blair turned with him. Dog Lead came screaming past Blair, with the A-37 screeching its distinctive high-pitched whine. Lead pickled two bombs at about 1,500 feet and pulled up sharply to the left. Blair kept Dog Lead in sight throughout its bomb run until it pulled up off the target.

The Bird Dog offered its pilot excellent visibility. With plexiglass windows fore and aft as well as overhead in the roof of the cabin, Blair could keep an eye on the fighter-bomber even when the FAC was in a high-banked turn. If anything went wrong with the fighter – ground fire, a mechanical problem, anything – the FAC would see it first.

“Lead is off left.”

This run was clean. The 500-pound bombs hit the middle of the roiling white smoke, exploding with two bright yellow-orange flashes followed instantly by two plumes of gray smoke. Blair whipped the O-1 around 180 degrees to see Dog Two approaching its turn coming down the chute. Blair kept him is sight, repeating the maneuvers he used to follow Dog Lead.

 “Dog Two is rolling in.”

 “I’ve got you, Dog Two, drop in pairs fifty meters short of Lead.”

 “Roger, fifty meters short.”

 “Dog Two you are cleared hot.”

 “Dog Two is in hot”

 “Two is off left.”

On a second bombing pass, Blair again adjusted the aim point to cover more of the target, and Dog flight dropped its last four bombs.

“Dog Lead, hold high and dry while I take a look.”

 “Roger, Red Marker. Holding high and dry.”

 “Dog Lead, it doesn’t look like we have any good targets for a strafing run today, You are released.”

 “Roger, Red Marker. Standing by for BDA.”

 “Dog Seven Five, negative on BDA right now. We are just kicking ass, not taking names. We’ll send BDA to your squadron in a couple of days.”  [12]

“Red Marker, understood. A pleasure doing business with you. Dog Seven Five Out. — Break. Two, go Channel Five.”

 “click, click” [13]

 “Red Marker One Six, this is Head Beagle. Are you ready for your Seven Fifteen fighters?”

 “Head Beagle, roger that. Send them on.”

And so it went for Blair and Mayberry for the next hour. The smell of cordite  mixed with sweat filled the cabin as they directed multiple airstrikes around the landing zones.

The Cambodian Incursion marked the apex of the Red Markers’ involvement in Vietnam. The unit had a dozen aircraft, six radio Jeeps, and 34 personnel, almost its maximum strength. This campaign employed more of those assets concentrated in a single area of operation and with greater results than any other in its history. Through most of May and June 1970, the Red Markers kept two O-1Es and one O-2A in the air over the Fishhook. Three radio Jeeps supported the operation – one at Quan Loi and one at two Special Forces camps.

The Red Markers operated courageously for eleven years. Even when the unit was markedly smaller, it contributed significantly to the success of the men on the ground. Red Markers share a bond with all who have gone to war, a relationship indescribable to those who have not experienced it and indestructible to those who have.

This history is dedicated to the Vietnamese Airborne Division and its American advisors, the Red Hats of Advisory Team 162, and all Red Markers, especially those who lost their lives in this conflict:

Airman Second Class James C. Henneberry

Captain Paul R. Windle

First Lieutenant Robert M. Carn Jr.

Captain Donald R. Hawley

Major F. Dale Dickens

[1] “Project CHECO Report – Commando Vault,” 12 October 1970

[2] “Project CHECO Report, Combat Skyspot,” 9 Aug 1967. The Air Force developed MSQ-77, a narrow beam, X-band radar system by reverse engineering a highly accurate bomb scoring radar the Strategic Air Command employed to train its forces. Strategic Air Command personnel staffed several MSQ-77 sites in South Vietnam.

[3] Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) Coordinates from “Project CHECO Report – Commando Vault,” 12 October 1970

[4] Klick – A kilometer (1,000 meters), approximately 0.6 mile

[5] Arc Light missions were controlled by the same Combat Skyspot radar units that directed the Commando Vault bomb drops. Each B-52 carried 108 Mk-82 500 pound bombs.

[6] Referred to sometimes herein as NVA and VC.

[7] The refueling pit had a small gasoline pump that moved the fuel through a hose from a 3,000-gallon rubber bladder. Air Force C-123s regularly delivered bladders of Avgas and JP-4 jet fuel to the remote airstrip to keep the local helicopters and fixed wing aircraft flying. If the pump failed, the crew chiefs hauled jerry cans to the top of the wing to fill the tanks.

[8] Conex – an 8’ x 8’ x 8’ corrugated steel shipping container with hinged, lockable doors on one side.

[9] Mk-82 is a 500-pound bomb. A high-drag version with retarding fins on the tail was known as “Snake.” A “slick” version had no such fins.

[10] Gen Shoemaker dissolved the Task Force five days into the operation. After that, Red Marker Control handled the fighter aircraft tasked to the Red Markers. Marker Control gave each incoming flight a rendezvous location and orbit altitude before sending the flight to one of several Red Markers who were in the air. Given the heightened activity of the Cambodian operation, two radio operators manned Red Marker Control, double the normal staffing. One handled the radio transmissions, while the other monitored and took notes.

[11] Rocket arming switches on the ceiling of the cabin were simple toggles covered by a hinged plastic guard. Once a tube was fired, the FAC left the guard open. He could then easily tell by feel which tubes had been expended and which had live rockets.

[12] After a strike mission, the FAC usually inspected the target and gave the fighters a Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA). On this first day of the invasion, however, the FACs were too busy to provide that report because they had to get ready for the next set of fighters. The Airborne troops would soon sweep the strike area and report the results directly to Red Marker Control. Control would match the location of the BDA to the strike mission and pass it on to the fighter squadron.

[13] A wingman sometimes acknowledged Lead with a double click of his radio transmit button. This created two audible sounds. Not an approved radio procedure.