Throughout May 1972, we worked in and out of the Lai Khe, Loc Ninh, Tay Ninh, and An Loc areas. The war was hot and we got a lot of action. In some ways, it seemed more like World War II than the typical of guerilla warfare experienced in Vietnam. The push toward Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army was heavy and it wasn’t being effectively stopped.
Our crews staged out of the Lai Khe airfield, and sometimes out of Tay Ninh East or Tay Ninh West. We were there to support the Americans that were heavily involved in countering the North Vietnamese offensive. We made a bunch of medevacs. Some of them were pretty nasty.
Whenever we went in to pick up the injured, many of the ARVNs that were not injured would try to jump on board the aircraft, just to get out of the action. We had never seen anything like this before. It was almost as if they had lost hope. To keep from endangering our aircraft and occupants by overloading, our crews were supplied cattle prods. I knew about these from growing up on a cattle farm in Mississippi and from my grandfather’s livestock auction barn. The cattle prods were similar to a billy club, about two and a half feet long. The difference was that these clubs were made out of stainless steel with a hollow shaft that was filled with batteries. The effect of being jabbed by a cattle prod was an unpleasant electrical shock.
It seemed inhumane, but we had to do it in order to avoid overloading the helicopters and crashing. On many medevacs before we got the cattle prods, we had South Vietnamese soldiers hanging all over the skids and trying to climb into the cargo compartment while we were departing the LZ. We arrived back in Long Binh from one mission with thirty-eight people on the Huey. The fact that the Vietnamese were small and didn’t weigh much was probably the only thing that kept us from crashing.
On several occasions, we watched F-4 Phantom and A-1 Sandies working over an area before we went in to pick up the wounded. The F-4’s frequently dropped napalm. On one occasion, we saw an F-4 drop a load of napalm on some South Vietnamese troops that were running down a road. The FAC had mistaken them for North Vietnamese soldiers.
The A-1’s were a later version of a World War II vintage aircraft, the P-47 Thunderbolt. Some of the A-1’s were flown by Americans and some were flown by the Vietnamese. They had several nicknames, but “Sandy” was the most common. Sandies were excellent for close air support because they could fly slow and carry a heavy load of ordinance. We even had some Sandies fly cover for us on a couple of Dustoff missions, and they were as effective as the Black Ponies had been.
The Air Force Forward Air Controllers (FAC’s) that were working the An Loc area were flying Cessna O-2s. That is the push-pull twin with one engine in the front and the other in the back. Those guys sat up there over the action all day like sitting ducks, while they marked targets for the Phantoms and the Sandies. Sometimes they even marked medevac sites for us. They also kept us out of trouble on numerous occasions by showing us where we didn’t want to go and by directing covering fire against forces that tried to shoot us down while we were attempting a medevac.
The FACs were great. The ones I remember most went by the call sign “Covey”. They sat up there above those SAMs as if they were invulnerable, but they weren’t. The bad guys knew that if they knocked out a FAC, they knocked out the eyes of the guys carrying the napalm, rockets, and bombs. They also knew that if they shot at a FAC and missed, they’d better get under cover, pronto.