Bird Dog Night Mission 1967 Phouc Tuy Province

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

As a rule, we just didn’t fly at night. The main reason was that there was little to be gained from it. The VC refused to use their headlights or build bonfires to guide us in. Without light, any attempt to see activity under the double and triple canopy jungle was futile. To add to the problem, if the moon wasn’t up, it was like flying around in an inkwell. The old pre-WWII suction powered instruments in the O-1, and the antiquated instrument lighting were marginal at best, and it was a serious situation if you had to rely on them at night.
At one point, we borrowed one of the new Starlight Scopes from the Army and tried night VR from the back seat of the O-1. After a couple of missions, we gave it up as nothing was seen. In addition, the instrument was bulky and difficult to use in the cramped quarters of the Bird Dog.
Night action occurred most often when the VC attacked one of the half dozen ARVN SF camps that were scattered around the area. This happened regularly, and provided a real challenge. We usually tried to put two FACs on the mission, but that wasn’t always possible, as we needed a FAC to stand by with another bird ready to go in case the first FAC got into trouble. The back seat at night with troops in contact was a trip to be remembered and I put it at the top of the list of things I hated most. Jinking around with my head down checking maps, frequencies, and whatever, was a quick ticket to nausea.
A night mission I remember well was in support of the “Kenny” sector FACs supporting the Duc Than outpost between Nui Dat, the Base Camp for the Australian Task Force, and Blackhorse, home of the US 11th Armored Cavalry Division, south of Xuan Loc. It occurred on 20 July 1967. Kenny responded first, but called Jade Control for back-up support. I got the call and took off at 0230, alone and with no moon. It wasn’t hard to find the place as mortar flares marked the site. I called up the Aussie artillery and got them to stand-by with illumination rounds as I motored north.
The Kenny FAC handed the situation off to me saying the VC had been mortaring the place and had been delivering a constant stream of small arms fire. The outpost expected an all out attack. I contacted the Ground Commander on FM radio and got the same situation report as Kenny had given me. I called Jade Control on UHF and ordered up a Spooky and an immediate airstrike. I contacted the artillery on VHF, gave them a coordinate, and ordered a marking round of illumination. They replied, “shot.” The one million-candlepower flare blossomed 200 meters south of the outpost. I gave “up 200 meters, two illumination rounds, fire for effect and stand-by to repeat.” One round at a time would have been adequate, but these flare shells had a habit of misfiring, leaving a streak of sparks and then darkness. Two rounds assured that at least one would be over the outpost at all times. Spooky called in from west of Bien Hoa with a 20 minute ETA. That was good news.
The Ground Commander was a Vietnamese, with a US SF sergeant on the radio to me. Why is it that they all sounded like they were from Brooklyn? He advised that the enemy was beginning an assault. I gave them the word that air support was 15 minutes away, and said I would be firing WP to create the impression that an airstrike was imminent and thus keep the VC heads down. I asked where the attack was coming from. Their answer was from the north, out of the rubber trees. The outpost was on the edge of a Michelin Rubber Plantation. I fired a WP at the south edge of the line of rubber trees and broke hard left. I was rewarded with a shower of tracer squirting back up the rocket’s path toward where I’d been. The artillery came up “ready,” and I replied, “fire.”15 seconds later two more flares blossomed at 1,000 feet over the Camp. It was great teamwork that kept up as long as we needed it.
The WP rocket had the desired affect as the steam went out of the attack, but not for long. The artillery, who had been monitoring FM, came up and said they had 155 mm artillery tubes loaded with HE air burst ready at my command. I told them to wait since the VC were too close to the outpost and the artillery gun-target line was over the outpost. A short round would have been disastrous. They accepted that, grudgingly, but said they would be standing by for my command.
Spooky called in approaching the rendezvous point I had given them. They could see the flares and wanted instructions. I told them to approach from the north as the artillery was coming in from the south. I would shut it off as soon as they were in position to kick out flares of their own. Meanwhile I’d set up for a marking pass coming in low from the north, out of the dark. I made a hard turn east leveled wings and toggled off one of my two flares from 50 feet. I broke hard left and climbed out to the west as the flare blossomed on the ground in the rubber trees and the VC broke cover charging the outpost. This was a situation made for Spooky’s three 6,000 round per minute miniguns. Spooky acknowledged the ground flare and the personnel moving between the rubber and the fort. I gave them clearance to fire and flare at will. I called up the artillery, gave them a “wait” call, and told them to stand-by with HE. Two airstrikes were going in and I would shoot them where it could do some good later.
Now came the incredible “Spooky Air Power Show.” The converted C-47 flew circles over and slightly north, upwind of the outpost. Red tracer lines appeared in twos and threes, from the aircraft to the ground in the rubber trees, and between the rubber and the outpost. VC caught out in the open, broke and ran toward the rubber, or fell and lay still – dozens of them.
The immediate airstrike flight came up on UHF – two F-4s with Napalm and CBU. I gave them a TACAN rendezvous point and asked them to hold at 20,000 feet overhead. I advised that Spooky was at work at 1,500 feet and artillery was to the south. Run-in would be east to west, troops in contact. They acknowledged that they had the target in sight, as Spooky was illuminating and laying down withering fire. On FM radio, the Ground Commander called for fire on the north wall of the outpost as a number of VC had made it that far and had nowhere else to go but inside. I acknowledged, “You want the fire on the north wall? Where will you be?”
“We are buttoning up, under cover, repeat, put the guns on the north wall.”
“Roger, fire on the north wall.” I had kept the UHF switch open during this exchange. Spooky, monitoring, said, “I got that, Jade, you want me to target the north wall.”
“Roger that, Spooky, go get ‘em.” The red lines, dragging a dust cloud, shifted across the cleared area, now spotted with black bundles and stopped at the north wall, raking the structure with a cloud of machine gun fire at 18,000 rounds per minute. In less than a minute it was all over.
The Ground Commander gave the command, “Hold your fire.”
I asked Spooky to stay another 10 minutes to provide lighting for the air strike. “Roger that,” he said.
I called up the Phantom flight who had been listening, “Set up for east-west runs north of the rubber tree line north of the outpost. We want to burn rubber!
I fired a WP rocket into the rubber, 10 rows back. Phantom Lead called, “In hot from the east with nape, I have the white mark.” I withheld clearance until I could see his shape appear dimly under the 2,000,000 candlepower flares being continuously dropped from Spooky.
“Cleared hot, Phantom Lead.” He splashed the mark with napalm, lighting up the entire stand of rubber trees. “Phantom Lead breaking north.” “Phantom Two in from the west, with nape, I have Lead’s nape.”
I said, “Put yours 100 meters left of Lead’s, in the rubber.” Four cans of jellied gasoline left an inferno that the enemy would have to deal with if they wanted more action against the outpost. I moved the CBU another step north of the napalm fires. Hundreds of little bomblets flashed and raised a cloud of dust in the wake of the retreating VC. The Phantoms expended in two passes each.
I told them, “No BDA at this time due to darkness and VC unwilling to volunteer numbers. Will get to you as soon as it’s available.”
“Roger, Jade 03, thanks for the work,” Phantom Lead answered.
I now had Spooky winding up the mission, looking for his next target from the DASC. I released him.
I talked to the Ground Commander. “Can I be of any more assistance?”
“Thanks, Jade, it appears to be quiet now. We don’t expect they’ll be wanting any more tonight. Be advised, the 11th Armored Cavalry, is on the way down the road from Blackhorse.”
I advised that I had artillery standing by for a shoot to their north to keep the VC moving. They approved so long as we kept the target west of the road to Blackhorse. I went back to the artillery, which had been waiting patiently, or impatiently, for something to kill. I said, “From your last illumination round, up 500, marking round, fire.Their response as if they had anticipated this command was, “Shot.”
The round burst well beyond the outpost to the north. I gave them the order, “10 rounds, battery fire, fire for effect.” I called back on the FM to the Ground Commander and assured him that the sounds he heard were not incoming, but well overhead to 500 meters north.
His reply was, “Sounds sweet to me.”
To the north, I saw the millipede that was the cavalry from Blackhorse, coming to the rescue. Down the road they came running fast and shooting the hell out of the sides of the road as they went. By this time, the VC forces were retiring from another busted attack, leaving probably 100 or more casualties on the battlefield.
I called the artillery and thanked them for the illumination, which turned the battle our way, and the extra shooting that put splinters up the retreating enemies’ ass. As I was leaving I noted the armor column arriving at the fort. I signed off with the Ground Commander. The thanks from “Brooklyn” sounded sweet.
Thank God not all the night missions were that intense. I think that this mission was the final exam for me as I had barely been in Vietnam for two months. After that it seemed easy.