Attacking West of the A Shau Valley

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

The early afternoon on 17 June 1968 was a typical sunny, slightly hazy day towards the end of the dry season in Laos. The O-2 engines were running smoothly, and I flew east over the farmlands of western Laos at about 5,000, crossing various parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail, toward the area assigned to me that day – the western accesses to the A Shau Valley, a notorious infiltration route through the mountains into South Vietnam. Arriving in the area, the weather was clear except for scattered cumulus with their bases around 5,000 feet. In addition to general reconnaissance, I was scheduled to interdict the main western approach route leading into the mountains with a flight of F-4s.
For the first time I also had a set of the new gyro-stabilized binoculars, and while waiting for the fighters I began studying the terrain. Below me a wide red dirt road snaked eastward through bright green jungle and lumpy wooded karst hills toward the foothills of the mountains forming the border between Laos and South Vietnam. Reaching the base of the mountains the road ran northeast for several miles then curved eastward again to pass into the mountain rimmed valley of the A Shau. The area west of the mountains was really a very beautiful scene if it were not for the knowledge that the entire area was rife with enemy activity. The area was heavily defended, but there was small likelihood the anti-aircraft gunners would shoot at me in daylight, when it was easier to pinpoint the gun locations and fighter aircraft were more available.
Turning back and forth erratically, I studied the area along the road. Compared to my standard binoculars the resolution of these new ones was dramatic. When after several minutes I was advised by the Airborne Command and Control Center (ABCCC) that my fighters were diverted to other targets, I moved to the foothills where the road headed northeast along the mountains and concentrated on the dense foliage of this road segment. It appeared to have particular potential as a storage area.
After a half hour of searching through the tree limbs, the new binoculars revealed more than I had expected. Hidden along the main road were two heavily laden trucks. Nearby on either side of the road were camouflaged structures and about a third of a mile west was a camouflaged revetted area with POL drums and equipment storage. They were so well hidden that without the gyro-stabilized binocs I would probably not have seen them. I immediately requested strike aircraft from the airborne command post but received only two F-105 aircraft on their way home from North Vietnam with only 20 mm cannon remaining. They were all that was available but it was better than nothing. I briefed the fighters en route as I moved a couple of miles north, where I fired one rocket at a big tree below to assess the accuracy of the sight on this particular O-2.
Just as rendezvous was completed, my little O-2A was slammed by a loud explosion, shortly followed by many smaller loud pops of passing 37 mm shells and the smell of cordite. The fighters reported a large number of airbursts directly above me. Advising the fighters that I may have received some damage, I headed out of 37 mm range. As I moved toward a safer area, the 37 mm guns continued to fire, and the fighters reported from their high orbit that they could see many air bursts and also several of the gun positions. For the 37 mm shock wave to make a noise like that the shell must have passed within inches. Believing that there was small possibility of actual damage I advised the 105s that all aircraft systems appeared normal, that the aircraft handled well and that I was returning to the road area.
But a quick discussion with the fighter pilots concerning the large number of 37 mm air bursts observed made me feel the guns were in too close proximity to the planned target area and that the danger to the fighter aircraft having to make low angle 20 mm gun passes was too great. I called off the strike. I did, however, request that the fighters show me the exact locations of the guns they had seen fire, and I confirmed the location by firing one Willie Pete on the site.
No sooner had the fighters departed and I had recorded the gun positions, than I observed an unusual situation on the ground. The surface wind was much stronger than predicted, and a small fire started by my latest WP rocket had quickly flared up into a significant fire involving a large number of trees.
I called ABCCC and was advised that there was no possibility of getting further strike aircraft. My thoughts returned to the lucrative targets I had found camouflaged by the road. Normally there would have been nothing further to do about these targets, but this was a unique situation... and my “unarmed” little O-2 carried a solution. My 12 remaining white phosphorous marking rockets were as good as, if not better than, many other types of ordinance for starting fires. If fires could be started upwind of these targets, the wind might fan these fires into larger fires that would sweep the whole target area. The foliage was evidently much drier than anyone had thought. High wind and very dry ground cover would not likely recur soon – there would be no second opportunity. I was talking myself into it. I thought it was worth a try, especially if I could destroy the POL storage.
I flew along the road upwind of the target, where I was out of range of the “known” gun positions, and making a diving rocket pass, I fired a number of rockets along a cross-wind line upwind of the POL storage. I then pulled up, circled around a fair weather cumulus cloud (they had grown about 1,000 feet high) to shield myself from any potential threat of guns near the road and flew back over the site to assess my handiwork.
Voila! A solid line of jungle within 200 meters of the POL storage site was in flames, the fire growing rapidly and heading for the POL. I made a second pass, firing four more rockets, filling in some of the blank area in my forest fire between the POL and the road, and turned to climb back up to 5,000 feet. That was when things started to deteriorate. The bad guys were not dumb. They realized what I was up to, and new gun positions opened fire with a barrage of tracers that passed noisily on all sides of my slowly climbing O-2.
So I moved away out of the effective range of these new and closer guns and observed that, in addition to starting the desired additional areas on fire, one of my last rockets had struck another military structure next to the road, and it was beginning to burn also. Now I needed to both start a fire on the opposite side of the road and also fill in areas of my forest fire line westward several hundred meters to link up with the fires burning near the POL dump. Such a fire would burn through areas where more storage would most likely be located.
Four Willie Petes left! To be sufficiently accurate to place rockets on both sides of the road I would have to fly well within range of the new gun positions. The risk might be sort of high, I thought, but so then would be the results if I were successful.
For a third time, I swung around the protective cumulus and dived into the area – forgetting the rule of not doing the same thing more than once, and let fly two more rockets. No sooner had I fired than I could see the red balls of 37 mm coming directly at me. Doing every erratic maneuver I could think of I avoided those I could see and slowly climbed back to a position just out of range. The last two rockets had started a fire that would fill in the remaining gap between the POL and the road. All that remained was to fire the forest on the opposite side of the road.
Now if I had used normal common sense, I would have quit after the second pass. But I was on a roll, and I hate incomplete jobs. The gunfire on the last pass had been accurate and heavy, and I estimated by the numerous streams of tracers that six to eight 37 mm anti-aircraft guns were now firing from positions along the road. The sky above was dotted with white air bursts. What to do? ... Or rather, how was I going to get away with finishing what I had started?...A vision popped into my mind of a plane attacking through a cloud (probably a WW II film I had seen somewhere...).
Scarcely considering whether or not I could get away with another pass, I made an instant decision to dive back, and hopefully, to catch the gunners off guard by my quick return, out of a cloud! I dove from behind a cloud directly into it, confident the cloud base was just around 5,000 feet. and that I could just pop out, squeeze off my last two rockets and quickly get back into the cloud and relative safety. But good plans don’t always go the way they should. I passed through 5,000 feet, then 4,500 feet, and diving through this cloud suddenly became a very bad idea. My God, I thought I am passing 4,000 feet and I am still in it! I was about to kiss it off, and then suddenly I was in the clear. The seconds it took to get the sight on target seemed like trying to run through chest deep water. Anticipating the gunners to fire immediately, I released the last two rockets (probably at around 3,500 feet) and pulled up into a sudden rolling looping turn that reversed direction and succeeded in avoiding the initial barrage of 37 mm. But as I was mentally (and desperately) pushing this paralyzingly slow aircraft back toward the security of the clouds above, rounds of 37 mm began to crack as they blew by on both sides!
Looking backwards alternately from one side and then the other, I darted the aircraft to the left and the right to avoid strings of 37 mm rounds. Survival, pure and simple!! There seemed no let- up in the firing. Some rounds, too many, seemed to pass inside the wingspan making loud supersonic bangs. I smelled cordite! Trying to out-fly the gunfire, meant taking longer to escape out of range, but there was no choice! I was like a rabbit darting back and forth trying to get away from a fox.Finally, after an agonizingly long time (although probably only about two minutes), I reached the clouds and banked abruptly to the left into them. Once inside I immediately banked to the right and the sound of the passing anti- aircraft fire stopped. “My God”, I thought...“That was a hell of a dangerous (dumb) thing to try and do.” I felt like I had just outrun a tiger, on foot. But, amazingly, I was alive! And my O-2 apparently in one piece!
Emerging from the far side of the cloudbank I climbed to 10,000 feet to slow the old heart rate and from where I could have a good safe view of the target area. As the site came into view it was immediately apparent that the plan had worked even better than I had hoped. Large fires were sweeping both sides of the enemy supply route. In a very few minutes they had expanded into one very large fire a half mile wide. The wind whipped the fire into such a fury that the flames
rose high above the ground (hard to estimate – probably a hundred feet above the trees, which can be 70-100 feet themselves). This size fire would probably mask secondary fires, I thought, but almost immediately secondary explosions began to occur.
For the next hour I orbited and monitored the progress of the fire. When it finally was reduced to many small fires, and no further results were probable, I turned the aircraft for the long trip home. I hoped the enemy had received a significant loss. My log lists two large intense secondary fires, four large secondary explosions, and five small secondary explosions. One truck destroyed, three military structures destroyed, as well as an unknown quantity of POL.
Was it a crazy thing to try? Probably. But, it was a unique opportunity, and I capitalized on it. Would I do it again? Yeah, probably. But I wouldn’t recommend it!