Gunship Mission
John A. Cash


By mid-1966 gun helicopter platoons, each platoon consisting of eight UH-1 (Huey) helicopters armed with rockets and machine guns and each platoon organic to an assault helicopter company, were hard at work all over South Vietnam. Usually five of the Hueys in a platoon were kept ready at all times while the other three were held in reserve or were undergoing maintenance. Four of the ready gunships flew in pairs, designated light fire teams. The fifth could be used to augment the fire of either team, and when so employed the three ships constituted a heavy fire team. Operating in support of American, South Vietnamese, and allied forces, these fire teams had a hazardous assignment, for the relatively slow-moving helicopter, flying at low levels, is highly vulnerable to ground fire. So valuable was the ships' support to ground troops, however, that the risks were considered justifiable.

In the spring of 1968 an incident occurred on the outskirts of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, that illustrates some of the methods used by the fire teams.
(See Map 1)

The strong offensive launched by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong during the Tet holiday had ended, but intelligence sources indicated the possibility of a follow-up assault against the capital. During late April and the first few days of May, substantial enemy forces were reported moving closer to Saigon from three directions.

To meet the enemy threat, Maj. Gen. Le Nguyen Khang, the South Vietnamese Army commander responsible for the defense of the city, relocated his forces, which normally operated in the outlying areas surrounding Saigon, to form a defensive ring closer to the city. As a part of the new deployment, he installed the three battalions of the South Vietnamese 5th Ranger Group on the edge of the Cholon sector in southwestern Saigon. General Khang charged his units with locating enemy caches, preventing infiltration of men, weapons,


ammunition, and equipment, and destroying any enemy forces that might manage to slip in.

The 5th Ranger Group, to carry out this order, placed two companies of its 30th Ranger Battalion in approximately thirty ambush positions along a north-south line a few kilometers west of the Phu Tho Racetrack, in the center of the Cholon sector, with another company behind them as a blocking force. A fourth company continued to perform security duties at the battalion base camp, eight kilometers away.

In addition to reinforcements available from II Field Force and Vietnamese III Corps headquarters and on-call artillery arid air strikes, General Khang's units could ask for assistance from the gunships of the 120th Aviation Company (Airmobile, Light). At that point in the Vietnam fighting, the 120th Aviation Company was not engaged in the combat assaults usually performed by such units but was assigned to provide administrative transportation for headquarters of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), and headquarters of the United States Army, Vietnam (USARV). In April 1968, however, MACV headquarters had directed that four armed helicopters of the company's gunship platoon be made available to Capital Military District headquarters to provide fire support for ground troops in and around Saigon. One fire team was to be on 5-minute alert status on the Air Force flight line at Tan Son Nhut Air Base while the other was to be on 30-minute standby at the gunship platoon headquarters on the Tan Son Nhut Air Base helipad. These gunships of the 120th Aviation Company were later to become heavily involved in the defense of Saigon against a major enemy attack.

Before dawn on 5 May 1968 the enemy offensive erupted. A battalion of a main force Viet Cong regiment with an estimated strength of 300 men attacked the Newport Bridge and adjacent docking facilities along the waterfront in northeastern Saigon.

The fight was joined.

A half-hour later two battalions of the 271st Main Force Viet Cong Regiment, followed by another regiment, attacked eastward in the 5th Ranger Group's Cholon sector. Using small arms, automatic weapons, and rocket fire, they attempted to seize the headquarters of the 6th Police Precinct. Throughout the morning, the 30th Ranger Battalion was heavily engaged with forces of the 3d Battalion, 271st Viet Cong Regiment, less than 3,000 meters due west of the Phu Tho Racetrack. Although the rangers had managed to slow the enemy with artillery and helicopter assistance, the fight was stiff raging in the early afternoon; hardest hit was the 3d Company, which was pinned down and under attack by two enemy companies.


Around 1400 the 30th Battalion's commander asked his American adviser, Capt. Roland L. Petit, a 27-year-old infantry officer, for help. The 3d Company, he said, had already lost six dead and ten wounded.

Captain Petit, an experienced adviser, considered the situation. Artillery thus far had apparently had a negligible effect on the determined enemy force. Furthermore, Petit knew from his Tet offensive experience that in deference to the civilian population General Khang would authorize tactical air strikes in or near the city only when all else had failed. There was but one thing left, Captain Petit reasoned-another gunship run. He radioed the request, his fifth of the day, to Capital Military District headquarters.

When his message crackled over the operation radio at headquarters of the 120th Aviation Company Gunship Platoon a few moments later, Maj. James P. Hunt, the platoon leader and veteran of 500 hours and l9 months of combat flying in Vietnam, had just finished inspecting his helicopters on the ready line at the Tan Son Nhut helipad. In the sweltering heat of this Sunday afternoon, he was about to feast on a C ration meal of pork steak. So far it had been a rough day. Hunt's five helicopters were riddled with bullet holes and that morning he had lost two crewmen wounded by ground fire. Furthermore, he knew that the others in his platoon were at least as tired as he was, since they had been flying fire support missions without letup for South Vietnamese marines and rangers since 0500. Yet he still had two fire teams operational as required, one on 5-minute alert at the Air Force flight line, the other on 30-minute standby at platoon headquarters.

Acknowledging the message, Hunt turned to Warrant Officer Ronald W. Davis, one of his 30-minute standby pilots. Davis, still in his sweat-soaked flying suit, was sprawled on the ground, legs stretched out, back against the wall, half asleep with fatigue. "Crank up your ship, Ron. We've got a mission near the racetrack again for our ranger friends. I'll fly the right seat with you and fill you in when we're airborne."

'Roger, sir." Davis got to his feet slowly and buckled on his .45-caliber pistol. Wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, he walked toward his helicopter. Davis, in Hunt's opinion, was one of his best pilots. He himself would accompany Davis because the copilot had been put out of action earlier that morning when enemy rifle fire shattered the plexiglass windshield and smashed his ankle.

Asleep on a bench a few feet away lay Maj. Chadwick C. Payne, who would pilot the other helicopter. Hunt nudged him gently.

"Let's go, Chad. We've got another one."


At the helipad some yards away from the operations building, Davis found Spec. 5 Dennis A. Sullivan, his 20-year-old, bespectacled, soft-spoken crew chief, and Spec. 4 Fred L. Rexer, his husky door gunner. Both men were stripped to the waist in the shimmering heat, reloading their gunship with ammunition to replace that which had been expended on a previous mission. Davis told them to get ready for a take-off in the next few minutes and then began his own preflight check.

Davis' helicopter mounted the XMl6 weapons system, consisting of two externally mounted 7.62-mm. M60CA1 machine guns ("flexguns") and fourteen 2.75-inch folding-fin aerial rockets, seven on each side of the ship. Capable of a cyclic rate of fire of 2,400 rounds per minute per machine gun, the M60CA1's had been designed to allow for an increased rate of 4,000 rounds per minute on the outboard gun when either was traversed to its inboard limit and stopped firing. In addition, the flexguns were controlled by a 3-second maximum fire time, with a momentary delay between firings. The rockets could be fired singly, in pairs, or in salvos from their cylindrical pods to a maximum effective range of 2,500 meters for area targets. They were most effective against point targets at 200 to 500 meters.

Specialist Sullivan inserted the last of the fourteen rockets in its chamber and then double-checked each of the 10-pound missiles to insure that all were loaded with secure detents in the twin mounts.

Specialist Rexer, who had been shot in the leg on an earlier mission, was a veteran of twenty-one months' combat in Vietnam, including infantry duty, and knew well what to do. He reloaded the twelve feeder ammunition boxes located in the cargo compartment with 6,000 rounds of 7.62-mm. machine gun bullets and stacked 2,000 rounds each for his door gun and Sullivan's. Satisfying himself that the ammunition rack-to-helicopter cable assembly was secure, he placed the rack firing switch to the reset position and continued his preflight check.

Chewing on an unlit cigar and scratching at a day-old growth of beard, Major Payne arrived at his ship on the revested stand next to Davis'. He began his preflight check, assisted by his crew of three.

Payne would be piloting the "big gun" of the team, a helicopter outfitted with the deadly XM3 armament system comprising two externally mounted pods, each containing twenty-four rockets that could be fired in the same manner as those of the other gunship. Unlike Davis' ship, however, Payne's carried no machine guns other than the usual two manned by the crew chief and door gunner.

Satisfied with the preparations, Major Hunt donned his crash helmet and body armor, climbed into the pilot's seat of Davis'


helicopter, and prepared for take-off. As Davis went about his preflight check in the copilot's seat, Hunt adjusted his own safety belt and shoulder harness and began to assist. Within minutes the checks were completed, the engine throbbed at idle, and Hunt and his three companions, along with Payne and his crew, awaited take-off clearance instructions from the helipad tower.

While he waited, Hunt radioed Payne, with Davis monitoring, and explained that they would be flying in support of the rangers again, in the same general area in which they had flown that morning. Other than that hostile fire was rampant in the area, Hunt could tell them nothing. The size of the enemy force and its exact location on the ground would have to come later. Actually, except for briefing them when he learned the enemy position, Hunt would have no need to issue further instructions to Payne or Davis, for standing operating procedure, along with the experience of weeks of flying together as a team, dictated the tactical techniques that would be used once the target was identified.

After a 5-minute wait, the tower cleared Payne's team for takeoff. With a less than 5-knot southwest-northeast crosswind and unlimited visibility, Payne chose to use the normal vertical take-off-to-hover-and-then-climb procedure. He led out first, with Hunt's ship a few hundred meters behind.

Engines roaring, the two helicopters climbed to 1,500 feet above Tan Son Nhut and then headed in a southeasterly direction. In a few minutes they were over the junction of the Saigon River and its southwest tributary, which bordered the city. Turning to the southwest they followed the muddy stream until they reached a point perhaps five kilometers southwest of the Phu Tho Racetrack, where both ships circled while Hunt switched to Captain Petit's radio frequency. (Map 15)

"I'm getting up pretty close to your position," Major Hunt said. "Where are you? Over."

As Petit answered, the noise of heavy small arms fire could be heard in the background. "I've got you in sight. We've been receiving heavy fire all morning and this afternoon. Hold on station at your orbit while I double-check our artillery check fire. Over."

"Roger, dodger. Standing by." Both Hunt and Payne monitored Petit's instructions and continued to maneuver their ships in a tight circle, staying clear of the artillery gun target line. Volleys of high-explosive shells fired from the Phu Tho Racetrack, their bright orange explosions lost in the glare of the afternoon sun, were slamming into the target area. It would be hazardous to attempt a gun run.

Hunt radioed Petit again. "Where's all the action? Over."


MAP 15 - Gunship Target and Landing Area

MAP 15




Hunt wanted to be sure. "Say again those co-ordinates. Over."

"Right down there where you fired on that factory earlier, where you had the individual wounded this morning. Over."

Listening to the interchange, Payne knew as well as Hunt exactly where to look. Neither could forget the deadly hail of fire which had met the ships on each pass that morning and had wounded Davis' copilot.

The target area lay to the north of the gunships on the outskirts of the city, two kilometers due west of the racetrack. A built-up factory complex of one-story brick buildings, dominated by a tall pagoda, bordered the west side of a north-south all-weather road. A few hundred meters to the west stood Ap Tan Hoi, perhaps one kilometer square, surrounded by rice fields. Under a thick pall of smoke, much of the hamlet lay in ruins from artillery fire and the northeast corner was in flames, evidence of the heavy fighting in progress between the Viet Cong and the 3d Company of the 30th Ranger Battalion.

Again Hunt radioed Petit. "Are you on the west side of the road, in and along those low brick buildings? Over."

"Negative! Negative on that! To the west of the road you'll see a pagoda about 200 meters from it. Including the pagoda and north of the pagoda, all those low buildings belong to you. Suggest you approach from the east. Over."

"Roger," answered Hunt. "Understand the pagoda and north of it belongs to me, but negative on an east approach. We got a lot of ground fire over there when we did that this morning. We'll be approaching from the west. Over."

Petit acknowledged. He would have preferred the gunships to attack from the east, for other ranger units were deployed east of the road. Nevertheless, he could understand Hunt's decision. The pilot wanted to attack from a new direction to avoid setting a pattern and he naturally wanted the mission to go with minimum exposure of his crew members.

Petit continued. "O.K. But I'd like you to be careful. We have a friendly element in that area. Over."

 "Where? Near the pagoda, north of it, or what? Over."

"Negative. Four hundred meters east of the pagoda on an eastwest line. Over."

Upon hearing this Major Hunt was even more convinced that his choice of direction for the attack was sound; he would not be firing over the heads of friendly troops on the ground, always a dangerous procedure. He continued to scrutinize the target area


It would be a point target mission and he would employ running fire at a 15-degree dive angle, thus producing a relatively small beaten zone. The only disadvantages to this approach would be the increased time of exposure of each helicopter to hostile fire and the fact that the long axis of the beaten zone in this case would be perpendicular instead of coincidental to the long axis of the target. Hunt decided on his concept and told Payne about it.

"O.K., Chad. We'll work over the pagoda and around it initially, and then we'll work away from it, northward, breaking to the northwest. Got it?"

"Roger," radioed Payne. "But let's make sure we're looking at the same pagoda. I see another one not too far behind it at a greater range. Let's be sure, Jim. Over."

Again Hunt queried Petit. "Is this pagoda we're talking about on the west side of the road?"

"That's affirm. You'll see an abandoned truck out on the road in front of it. Over."

Both pilots searched for the vehicle but to no avail.

"I can't see the vehicle from this angle but I believe it's a yellow or cream-colored pagoda, isn't it?"

"That's affirm."

"Are you still picking up a lot of fire down there? Over."


"From the pagoda itself?" Hunt wanted him to be as precise as possible.

Anxious to get the mission started, Petit replied, "We're receiving an awful lot of small arms fire from the general area. You can start anytime and the artillery has been turned off. Over."

"No sweat. We'll start our run at this time. Out."

Both ships began to unwind from the circling position. Payne's rocket ship would go first, followed by Hunt's, with Hunt to begin firing as soon as Payne broke to the northwest. Payne would fire his rockets in six 2-round volleys on each of four passes. Co-ordinated flight on his part was of considerable importance, for if not properly streamlined in the relatively minor crosswind complete accuracy would be impossible. He estimated the target engagement range at 1,500 meters and decided to aim at the base of the pagoda for his first strike. By attacking at this range, he would be able to avoid breaking over the target area and exposing the ships to more hostile fire than necessary.

Swinging in a wide arc westward, Payne dropped to an altitude of 1,200 feet and lined up on an almost due east-west axis with the target at 90 knots, a good attack speed.

As with all rocket ship armament systems, the pilot would both


fly the aircraft and fire the missiles. Payne eased over into his dive angle, switched the rocket selector switch to "two," and then turned the armament system main switch to the "armed" position. He fixed the target through the infinity sight mounted directly in front of him and as the pagoda loomed ever closer in the reticle pressed the firing button slowly three times.

The helicopter shuddered as the rockets left it. From the pagoda base black smoke rose and masonry fragments flew in all directions while Payne's two door gunners laced the area just forward of the target with M60 fire. The helicopter banked sharply left at a range of 750 meters.

Following 500 meters to the rear and slightly to the right, Major Hunt began lining up on the target axis even before Payne had made his break, for it was his job at this point to protect the exposed underside of Payne's ship from enemy fire. His copilot, Warrant Officer Davis, fired the flexguns, adjusting the bullet strikes into the base of the pagoda in much the same fashion as one would direct a stream of water from a garden hose. Hunt fired his rockets in two 2-round volleys, guiding on the bullet strikes, while Rexer and Sullivan fired their door guns at enemy weapons flashes and likely positions along the flanks and forward of the target area.

Petit radioed his satisfaction. "You're doing a fine job. Keep it up. Did you receive any fire on that approach? Over."

Having counted at least three automatic weapons flashes in the target zone, Hunt replied, "Roger that."

Petit had a suggestion. "On your next pass you might try at the edge of the wood line and work on the same axis you just flew, up through those buildings and into the pagoda. Over."

"I assume you mean on the west side of the road. Right?"

"That's affirm."

"Roger-roger. We'll just march it a little shorter-about 200 meters short of the pagoda on up into it."

"Good," replied Petit. "We've got about an enemy squad, at least, identified in that area."

The two gunships made their second pass, approaching from the same general direction but a few degrees further southward. They received moderate fire from enemy ground positions as each ship broke.

Following this pass, Petit noticed a slackening of enemy fire. He radioed Hunt. "Your pattern is good. Keep it up."


As his team swung around in a wide arc for the third pass, Hunt asked, "Can we be specific? Where is most of the enemy fire coming from, the factory buildings or the pagoda? Over."


Rockets from Major Payne's gunship hit enemy positions.


Petit still wasn't sure. "It may be coming from either the pagoda or the factories. It's in that area in there and I understand now that there may be a platoon in there. Over."

"Roger. O.K. Real fine."

On the third pass, once again from the same general direction, the Viet Cong took the ships under fire.

Petit inquired. "Did you receive heavy fire from the target?"

"Some, but it didn't seem very intense."

As Hunt's helicopter banked to the left on his fourth pass, four rounds of enemy automatic weapons fire smashed into the bottom of the fuselage. The bullets ruptured the hydraulic system, ripped through the flexgun ammunition boxes, and lodged in the ceiling of the cargo compartment.

Leaning over to determine the extent of the damage, Specialist Sullivan could see through the bullet holes that flames were dancing around beneath the compartment floor near the fuel cell. On the intercom he told Hunt: "We're on fire, sir."

As if to second the motion, Warrant Officer Davis, having smelled the smoke, yelled, "There's a fire on here!"

Major Hunt had realized his aircraft was hit, for he had felt the impact of the rounds on the ship and almost immediately had difficulty in trying to level off from his bank, a sure sign to him that the hydraulic system had failed. The "Master Caution" light flashed on the instrument panel and a steady, piercing, high-pitched signal


filled the intercom system, warning all aboard of an in-flight emergency. Hunt's immediate impulse was to head for Tan Son Nhut, a few kilometers away, but because of the fire he elected to try for a forced landing before the flames reached the fuel cell.

Davis yelled to Hunt: "Get the power down, sir! Get the power down!" He wanted to auto-rotate, that is, to make a power-off descent.

"Never mind that," Hunt replied. "Help me with the controls." He needed all the help he could get to maneuver the ship safely to earth.

Searching frantically for a place to land, Major Hunt spotted a dry rice field a kilometer or two north of Ap Tan Hoi; it looked deserted and would afford at least 100 meters of slide space once the helicopter touched ground. With Davis assisting at the controls, Hunt executed a slow, descending, turning glide toward the field. Autorotation was out; it would have required a last-minute hover, an impossibility with the hydraulic system gone. By this time hydraulic fluid was spilling across the cabin floor and the cockpit was filling with smoke. Hunt radioed Major Payne his predicament and his plan and reported that no one had been injured.

Payne immediately swung his helicopter around and followed the crippled ship. He had no doubt that, barring a midair explosion, Major Hunt could land his craft safely. As to what to expect once it landed, Payne wasn't sure. The enemy situation was vague. A1though Payne had expended all his rockets, he still had 300 rounds left for each of his door guns in the event Hunt ran into trouble. He radioed Capital Military District headquarters the situation and was promised that a rescue helicopter would soon be en route. Headquarters diverted two F-100 aircraft to orbit near on a standby basis. Alerted as well was the 5-minute standby gunship team.

Hunt and Davis continued to maneuver their helicopter toward the rice field, while behind them Specialist Rexer calmly unbuckled his safety belt, climbed outside the ship, and edged along the landing skid until he reached a point close to the pilot's compartment. He unlatched Major Hunt's door to clear away some of the smoke, then reached inside and slid the side armor protective plate rearward in order to allow the pilot a rapid exit once the ship touched down. Reaching beneath Hunt's seat with one hand and holding precariously to the side of the ship with the other, he removed the portable fire extinguisher, returned with it along the skid to the cargo compartment, and attempted to extinguish the blaze.

Specialist Sullivan also moved out onto the skid on his side, unfastened Davis' door, and returned to his own position.

Maintaining an approach speed of seventy knots, both pilots


Major Hunt's gunship burns after landing.


gradually applied as much control as they could in an effort to achieve a flat landing.

Skimming scrub brush and rice paddy dikes, the smoking helicopter slammed into the ground, skids first, and then slid for fifty meters before coming to a halt just short of a 3-foot rice paddy embankment. A north-south road ran perpendicular to the embankment and some 200 meters to the north a South Vietnamese Popular Forces compound was visible. The ship had come down on the east side of the road.

Even before the helicopter came to a stop, its crew went into action. Hunt and Davis shut down the engine and turned off all switches. The tank still had 800 pounds of fuel but Rexer had used up his fire extinguisher in the cargo compartment. Rexer rushed forward, grabbed Davis under the armpits, and yanked him from the copilot's seat. He then lent a hand to Major Hunt.

With everyone out of the aircraft, the pilots, still burdened by their cumbersome body armor, headed for a field across the road to the west that Hunt had spotted. If any of the enemy were nearby, rice stalks and tall grass offered some concealment for Hunt's men. Rexer and Sullivan, figuring there was yet time to salvage some


equipment from the ship, grabbed their tools from the kits and worked against the fire that was still burning in the cargo and engine compartments. Rexer was unscrewing the flexgun pod mount assembly; Sullivan, on his knees at the front of the helicopter, had raised the access door to the electronic equipment and was dismantling the radios.

Hunt, reconnoitering the field on the west side of the road, was startled by a flash of light from the helicopter. He saw then that burning hydraulic fluid dripping from the aircraft had started a fire in the grass under the ship. It was a sudden flare-up of this fire that had caught his eye.

"The ship's going! Get 'em away from there!"

Davis ran toward the road, yelling to Rexer and Sullivan to pull back. The two left the plane reluctantly and headed for the road. They had just reached the embankment when the helicopter erupted into a bright orange fireball. As they watched, the fireball dissipated and the ship burned fiercely. Billows of thick black smoke rose from it and machine gun ammunition exploded in all directions.

Hunt looked at his watch. It was 1450 and they had been on the ground seven minutes. He took stock of their situation. Both Rexer and Sullivan carried M16 rifles, snatched from the ship at the last minute. Between them they had twenty-two magazines of ammunition. Hunt and Davis had .45-caliber automatics and a total of seventy-five rounds. It was not much to set up a defense. As yet no enemy had appeared, but if a force was sent to investigate the crash Hunt figured it would come from Ap Tan Hoi, a hamlet some 1,000 meters to the southwest. He ordered Sullivan and Rexer to divide their ammunition and take up positions fifty meters apart, lying prone in the field, facing south. Hunt himself took a position fifty meters inside the field-at the apex of the triangle. Davis, the copilot, Hunt ordered out to patrol to the west to a distance of about twenty-five meters.

During the ten minutes since Hunt's helicopter had landed, Payne, piloting the other ship in the fire team, had been hovering above. He now decided to take a chance and land. As soon as Payne set his ship down, Hunt was beside him. Above the roar of the blades, Hunt yelled that everything was all right. Satisfied, Payne took off again. He would hover at a low level and if a rescue ship did not arrive soon he would land again and attempt to evacuate the crew himself, despite the danger inherent in the added weight of Hunt and his crew.

Davis had meanwhile returned from his patrol. He called Hunt's attention to the Popular Forces compound, 200 meters to the north. Someone in the compound was waving at them.


Downed crew leaves popular forces compund for rescue helicopter.

for rescue helicopter

"See if you can signal them to come down here," said Hunt.

But the Vietnamese seemed to be waving them to come to the compound instead.

Hunt thought it over for a minute. He had no relish for staying in the open till a rescue ship arrived. He led his men, single file, toward the compound. At the gate they were welcomed by a smiling Vietnamese who seemed to be in charge.

Once inside the barbed-wire gate, the crew was surrounded by a shouting, cheering squad of Vietnamese. One soldier poured iced tea into small porcelain cups and handed them around to the Americans, bowing ceremoniously as he did so.

Ten minutes later an Air Force rescue helicopter landed just outside the gate of the compound, picked up the crewmen, and flew them back to Tan Son Nhut Air Base.

Within an hour of their return, Hunt and his crew were flying another gunship mission in a replacement aircraft. It was all in a day's work.

page created 7 May 2001

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