Long Range Reconnaissance Patro

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

One fall afternoon in 1969, I was flying VR in the northern part of our AO just south of War Zone D in the Northeast sector of III Corps. I was flying the OV-10 Bronco out of Bien Hoa in support of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, the Red Catchers. The Bronco was the new FAC bird in country and I’d been flying it for about eight months. Specifically, I was flying Tail Number N14626 loaded with two pods of marking rockets, two pods of high explosive anti-personnel rockets, and 400 rounds of 7.62 mm in my four guns.
VRs were that part of our lives when we would drive around for hours staring at the jungle in the hopes that some dummy on the ground would wave a big red flag to point out where he and his Company of well equipped VC or NVA were, so we could call up a boat-load of fighters and blow them up. Sometimes they did!
On this particular afternoon, the radioman at Drama Control, our TOC back at the Brigade Forward Headquarters, called up and advised me to contact a LRRP on FM. LRRPs loved to go way out into the jungle in small groups, beyond artillery range, and lay in hiding watching for the bad guys. Very few knew where they were or, in fact, what they did or why they did it. While at the Forward Brigade Headquarters, I would occasionally join a LRRP Team for cokes and be fascinated with their stories of what they did out there. They would tell me that I was crazy for flying alone, low and slow over “Indian Country,” being a perfect target for any enemy soldier with an AK-47, RPG, etc. I thought they were a lot crazier than that. They said they could sometimes watch a FAC flying around and listen to the enemy taking shots at him. This news was sobering yet encouraging, as I had often felt there was no one down there who cared anything about me.
But, back to the immediate story. I switch to FM and gave the LRRP Team a call. I got an immediate response in a whispered voice. I knew right then something was up. People alone in the jungle do not whisper unless they have a reason. The Team informed me that they had enemy in a semi-circle a hundred meters or so to their north. I asked them if they were in control of the situation. The guy on the radio was not amused. He gave me a set of coordinates to generally locate the enemy – YT5248 – and asked me to fly in that direction. After a couple of minutes, the guy whispered that he could hear me. For the next few moments he gave me steering information toward his position. As they obviously were unable to mark their position with smoke, the guy on the radio told me they would flash a panel at me. These panels were 12-inch-square brightly colored pieces of cloth that the guys on the ground would use to mark their positions when they needed to be discreet. As I approached overhead I started looking around, but I didn’t see the panel. To avoid giving the bad guys a heads up, I avoided driving around the area in circles as though I’d seen something. The LRRP radio guy talked me back across the area a couple more times until I finally saw the guy with the panel. I made mental notes of their position using terrain features, color differences, direction and distance from a prominent bend in the Song Dong Nai River, and a TACAN fix. They were deep in the jungle far removed from obvious ground checkpoints.
During my search for the LRRP Team they were telling me they thought the enemy might have an idea they were there and seemed to be probing the area to find them. The whispered voice became more tense, and it became obvious their level of concern was rising. Since they were outside of artillery range and in an area not conducive to a troop insertion or extraction, they wanted to know if I could get them air support. I asked my Radio Operator if he could find a set of fighter immediately, followed by some back up. Moments later he was back to tell me that there was a flight of A-37s scrambling out of Bien Hoa. That was good to hear, as the A-37s, call sign Rap, were good bombers, carried a lot of ordnance, and had the capability to hang around and work creatively.

Author’s note: One of the consistently rewarding aspects of my tour of duty in RVN was working with the young enlisted AF personnel who were our communications support at the TOC, the tireless mechanics who worked on our airplanes and kept us flying day and night, and the guys at the DASC and TACC who so consistently and quickly pulled resources out of the air in response to our needs.
I told the LRRPs on the ground that I had a flight of fighters on the way. I informed them that since they were not going to be able to mark their position, they were going to have to give me some good estimates of enemy position relative to their location. I would start the attack based on their guidance, and from the impacts we would adjust subsequent attacks to kill and/or route the bad guys. To gain an element of surprise I was lingering some distance from the target area, and the LRRPs and I had agreed not to mark the target area for the fighters initial pass. A flight of 2 A-37s, called to check in. They were carrying Mark-82 Snake-Eyes, napalm, and guns. Their call sign was Rap 01 – obviously the Squadron Commander. The A-37’s were great ground attack aircraft to work with, and I anticipated some good deliveries. I responded with a TACAN fix to head for. On the way in I gave them the briefing on target information, weather, etc. and let them know I had a LRRP Team about to be stepped on by the enemy.
I contacted the LRRPs and told them I had the fighters overhead and would start bombing shortly. The whisper came back, even more tense, to tell me that if something didn’t happen soon, the bad guys were going to be walking in on them.
I contacted Rap 01 and complete my briefing. I told him that I was fairly certain the enemy did not realize we had them located, and that the LRRPs were not going to mark their position. I told lead I would line him up, give him left/ right directions to the target, and tell him when to pickle a couple of Mark-82s. Rap 01 was not happy with my plan. He told me he would not drop ordinance unless the friendlies marked their position and I marked the target. He reminded me of the ROEs. I tried to stress the importance of the element of surprise in the situation, but he was having no part of it.
The LRRP whispered rather loudly, “What the fuck is going on?” I gave him, “Standby,” and went back to Rap 01. I told him that if he couldn’t follow my instructions, he could take his ordinance out to the South China Sea dump it, and go home. I added that I would then call for a real set of fighters. That of course didn’t sit well with Rap 01. He barked back at me that he would drop as directed but he ordered me to report to him immediately when I got back to Bien Hoa. I was thinking, “I’ve got enough going on as it is. I’m sure as hell not going to report to this jerk for an ass chewing. If he wants me he can hunt me.”
I brought the flight down to 2,500 feet, told them to spread, and swung them onto a downwind leg to the north of the target. I turned lead onto a base-leg and started him for a position directly over the target. I turned him onto final approach and cleared him hot. I’d seen enough bombs come off of aircraft in the last eight months that I figured I could pin-point where the release point should be. I gave him an “easy left,” followed immediately with “steady out, looking good, ready, ready, pickle.” Two Snakes descended into the jungle exactly where I wanted them.
The LRRP was immediately on FM saying, “South 30 meters and east 30 meters.” Rap 02 was turning final. I gave him corrections off of Leads bombs and cleared him hot. Two more perfect bombs. The LRRP was back with another correction to the south. He was working the ordinance closer to his position. I gave Lead corrections and cleared him hot again. Another correction and Rap 02 was in hot. I checked with the LRRPs to see how we were doing. He came back in a normal voice, and I could hear a great deal of commotion and gunfire in the background. He told me the enemy was moving off to the northeast and requested more ordnance. I set the Rap flight up for napalm deliveries. Since the bad guys now knew we were there I rolled in to mark the target. I headed down the chute and watched the tracers coming up. I fired a rocket and told Lead to drop nape one o’clock at 20 meters from my mark. I observed tracers streaming up from the jungle toward the A-37s. Fortunately the jungle was our friend and hindered the enemies tracking. After four nape passes the flight went “Winchester” and up to holding altitude. I check in with the LLRPs. It was quiet in the background. He was ecstatic. He figured we had killed a few, and the rest were beating feet to the northeast.
I gave Rap 01 the report from the ground, thanked him for the good bombing, and released him from the area. Rap 01 sounded almost codial at this point and signed off. I called Drama Control to short-stop any further fighters – the mission was accomplished.
I never did keep my appointment with Rap 01. Somehow I think, in the end, we understood each other.
Afterword: Several days later I was at the Brigade FOL as the ALO. Since there was not a suitable runway in the immediate area, we would rotate FACs by helicopter out to the 199th FOL to serve as ALOs, and on that day, it was my turn.
I was in the ALO hooch when there was a knock on the door and several LLRPs walked in. Those guys dressed and looked different from the rest of the troops, so there was no mistaking who they were. The Team Leader asked me if I knew Drama 05. I told him, “That’s me.” He said that they were the LLRP team that had been on the ground a few days before when I had worked the A-37s. He informed me that we had done an outstanding job, had saved their asses, and had killed about a dozen enemy. He then swung up an AK-47, handed it to me, and told me they had taken it from one of the enemy dead. They wanted to present it to me as a gift of thanks.
I, of course, was feeling very proud at that moment. I was admiring the weapon, and slid the bolt back. There was some foreign substance and a dark reddish color in the breech. Stupidly, I asked what it was. He said that they tried their best to clean up the weapon, but just could not get all of the flesh and blood out of it. Apparently a bomb blast had done a pretty good job of spraying the gun’s former owner into the weapon. Well, I was not feeling too good at that moment. I told the LLRPs that I was real pleased and honored that they were satisfied with my work, but that I just couldn’t accept the gift. I mumbled something like, “We can’t accept contraband like this,” and thanked them for the thought. They said, “Fine,” and invited me over to their hooch for a couple of beers. I accepted their offer, and we had a very fine time that Fall evening in 1969 in the Republic of Vietnam.