The Day I Blew Up a Mountain

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

In May of ’69 I came to the conclusion that the 19th TASS and our DIV ALO really didn’t want an ALO/FAC in the 1/9th Air Cavalry Squadron. The many reasons I volunteered to transfer aren’t important but the 50% casualty rate in the Squadron did help prompt me to answer the call when the 23rd TASS asked for ten experienced OV-10 FACs to move to NKP. I was not surprised to be selected. They asked for volunteers who had about six months experience in country and I had that much. I left Phouc Vinh in early June. I must add that the DIV ALO attended the 1/9th Hale and Farewell and listened to my parting speech to the Army Troopers. Their reaction and some very kind words from the SQ and Troop Commanders prompted him to ask me to stay. To his credit he had changed his mind about my work. He offered to make sure I kept the job and could continue to operate as I had been. I knew that he was going out on a limb for me but I felt that if I kept operating like I had been I would leave SVN in a coffin or on a stretcher like some of my friends.
The day I left Tom Felton, C Troop Commander and John Paczkowski, my Crew Chief were the only two that saw me off, besides Bob Niles who flew me to Bien Hoa. Two weeks later Tom was killed in a night mid-air collision and I don’t know what happened to John.
My experience in clearing the 19th TASS and getting transport to Thailand strengthened my belief that I had done the right thing. It was obvious that I was low on their priority list.
I had to wait at each station and was sent on wild goose chases all over the base. Then I had to arrange my own transportation. I learned later that it was an easy flight in the OV-10 so I could have asked one of the CAV FACs to take me to NKP. But then I wouldn’t have spent the night in Bangkok.
When I started flying at NKP I wasn’t so sure I had done the right thing when one of those big glowing balls floated toward my aircraft. I was lucky though because I flew day missions and that minimized the number of times I was a target. I lost count of the times I would turn and catch sight of some tracers coming up behind me. I only remember getting hit once over Laos and it was small arms fire while I was supporting a SAR.
Day flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Steel Tiger for me consisted mostly of flying specialized missions or VR. When I was flying VR I had to have a really good target to get an air strike but often I would get fighters that had been diverted and had to drop quickly. So during my VR I would track areas that seemed promising and when ABCCC would offer to give me those quick strikes I would pick an area nearby where I suspected something was going on and expend them. Sometimes I got good results and sometimes not.
One day I was flying the last mission of the day, which meant I would be touching down just as the sun disappeared. It was early in the mission so I first went to an area I had been observing for several days that was the furthest out. I planned to work my way back to the most active part of the trail in case the NVA decided to get an early start that night.
The area was thick jungle but there were numerous places where it looked to me that there were a lot of active trails that seemed to come together at the base of a Karst. Just after I flew over the Karst I got a call from the ABCCC with the offer of a flight of fighters if I had a good target.
I told them I had an area that looked active and I sure would like to probe it with a strike to see if there was something good there. They said the fighters were very low on fuel and could only make about two passes. I told them to send them to me. The fighters, F-4s with Mark 82s, came up on my frequency almost immediately. They were a little far out so I had plenty of time to get into position, brief them on the target and be ready to fire a Willie Pete marking rocket as soon as they had me in sight.
I briefed them to make their passes along the side of the mountain and to put their bombs as close to the base of the mountain as they could get them. I told them I hadn’t seen any ground fire but that it was an area with a lot of active trails.
I rolled in and fired the WP and told them to try and put their bombs between my mark and the mountain. The first F-4 put his bombs just where I wanted them and I told the wingman to hit long and I would follow him in for another mark. He did a good job and I rolled in to follow his path.
As I rolled out to fire the mark I could see under the trees because of their hits and the area under the trees was filled with newly built hooches (oops, I mean military structures). They were the golden color of new structures rather than the gray of older buildings. I fired a rocket into a hooch and then cleared them hot to walk their bombs from my smoke further along the side of the mountain.
They told me this was their last pass and they had to drop everything they had. I followed them in again and could see numerous burning hooches, secondary fires and explosions and caves in the side of the mountain. There were many more hooches under the trees. I was sure we were either into a big base camp or storage area. I thought it was a base camp because I didn’t see any trucks for hauling material. I complemented them on their work and credited them with a BDA of about 20 military structures plus some secondary fires and explosions.
When I called ABCCC I told them we were into something big and I would take all the fighters I could get because it looked like a wide area of lucrative targets. They sent me two more flights of F-4s and said that was all I could get because everybody else was dumping their loads and going home because of the approaching darkness. I didn’t argue but I thought we had at least two more hours of enough light to keep probing the target. I was just happy that I could get some strikes on a good target for a change.
The next flight checked in and had a little more fuel so I was able to walk the bombs around uncovering more hooches, starting more fires and setting off more secondary explosions. The flight departed happy with their BDA. The third flight checked in and I briefed them that we seemed to have pretty much destroyed the hooches I could see and I hoped they could hit some of the caves.
They didn’t seem too happy about that but agreed to try. It meant they had to fly toward the mountain and drop far enough away to hit the cave and break clear without hitting the Karst. It certainly wasn’t an easy assignment. I put in the mark and told them to hit any cave they could see around my smoke. They rolled in and started dropping one bomb at a time.
Their bombs were all over the place! They hit up the side of the mountain and the open ground in front of the caves several times so nothing happened. Finally they said they had to unload and go home. I put in another mark and told them to try to hit the cave next to my smoke. Lead rolled in and I watched the bombs disappear into the cave! The last fighter was right behind him and his bombs disappeared into the cave also!
There was a short period when nothing happened so I told them they hit it perfectly but I couldn’t give them any BDA. Just as I said that the whole mountain shook violently and seconds later smoke and dust started floating out of the cracks in the top of the Karst.
I said I couldn’t tell them what was going on but the whole mountain was periodically shaking violently and smoke and dust was coming through the cracks on the top. I said it seemed to me that they had set off numerous explosions inside the Karst. They didn’t sound too happy with such a nebulous report and went home. I continued to watch the mountain for some time and it would sit there quietly and then suddenly shake violently and more smoke and dust would belch out the top of the mountain. Obviously bad things were happening inside the mountain. I watched it happen time after time. Finally I decided to look over the rest of my area and check it again later.
I covered my VR area and didn’t spot anything that I thought I could get air strikes for so I flew back to the mountain about two hours later. I was amazed to find it was still periodically shaking with smoke and dust spewing out through the cracks in the top of the Karst. I reported my sighting to the ABCCC and told them it was still a good target in my estimation. They replied that everything was being held for the night missions so I called it a day and returned to NKP. It turned out to be the right thing to do because the sun set as I taxied into my parking space. I had only made a couple of real night landings in my tour and I was out of practice.
The intelligence debriefing didn’t go very well in my estimation. The Lieutenant that debriefed me seemed to have only one answer for every thing I told him. “We’ll check further but that is an area of no known enemy activity.”
The fact that the bombing was excellent, probably the best results I ever got using F-4s, and that what appeared to be a whole village of at least fifty large hooches destroyed didn’t appear to be of much interest to him. The description of the best F-4 bombs I ever saw dropped setting off explosions that were still cooking off after two hours was of doubtful usefulness to the war effort.
He did offer to keep checking to see if any of it could be verified. By this time I was used to REMFs indifference to anything outside their area of interest and really didn’t care about much of anything anymore so I just said I would look forward to hearing any information that could be gathered about the mission. By the time they got around to fragging an RF-4 to check, the trees and brush would have grown back and all they would see was some empty bomb craters because everything else would have been cleared away. I had learned in SVN that since it was such a bad luck place the enemy would probably never use it again.
I went back to my BOQ room, gulped down a martini, cleaned up and went to the club for dinner. I never heard another word about the mission.
If I ever decide to visit Vietnam again I would like to try to check the NVA records on that date and see if there is anything about losing a mountain.
But I imagine their REMFs were as reluctant to report losing a mountain as ours were to confirming killing one!