24 Little Hours During Lam Son 719

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I write this 40 years after the events occurred, but I write as well as I can remember.
The early “go” was going to be a good mission, I hoped. In the OV-10, my backseater, South Vietnam Air Force Lt. Nguyen, seemed very eager to get to the war. It was February 1971 and we were flying out of Quang Tri airbase in northern I Corp, South Vietnam. We headed West to the border, passing over Khe Sanh with its large build-up of supplies in support of the Lam Son 719 invasion of Laos. We went right to our assigned sector radio frequency, disregarding the artillery base call-ins. Lt. Nguyen was different to the other South Vietnamese backseaters, given to us to help communicate with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) ground commanders. The other backseaters were Army ARVN artillery spotters. Lt. Nguyen was Air Force, was born in the North, was eager to fight, and had already won an award; a DFC from the USAF, for flying actions in support of ARVN ground forces in combat. His fellow backseaters were definitely not eager and sometimes argued with the ARVN ground commanders. In frustration, some ground commanders spoke English directly to the frontseater FAC to bypass the backseater. However, the backseaters all had experience in support of ground combat. In contrast, my flight of FACs had just arrived from NKP Thailand and were not used to troops-in-contact operations on the ground. However, we did know Laos very well and spent 20 to 25 days a month controlling air strikes in the southern Laos panhandle, the target area for this operation.
The ARVN ground units were now in their second week of their invasion into Laos and the Ho Chi Minh trail. This was in the Tchepone sector and was the main hub of the North Viet Namese Army (NVA) supply lines to South Vietnam. The supply trails went from North Vietnam’s southwest border, west into Laos around the DMZ, then south through the Tchepone (Laos) area, then southeast into South Vietnam’s northern sector, I Corp. The town of Tchepone was along the east/west route 9 and sat in an east/west valley with mountains to the north and a high ridgeline along the southern edge of the valley. Tchepone itself was about 22 miles inside Laos and was the objective of the Lam Son 719 operation. This would cut the Ho Chi Minh trail at the mid point and stop the NVA’s build up for their summer offensive.
One of our missions that day was to assist some ARVN ranger units on high hilltop positions in the mountains north of Tchepone. Their hilltop positions were supposed to control and stop the NVA units from coming south to attack the main ARVN units trying to move west to Tchepone. However, the hilltops were only about five miles from the southwest corner of North Vietnam itself and NVA reinforcements could get there in one night’s travel. The rangers were not equipped to stop NVA tanks and heavy artillery. The rangers had dug trenches at the hilltop position and also perimeter trenches in a circle about 100 meters from the top. When we got there, the ground commander stated that the NVA units had attacked from the east side and had taken over the east side outer perimeter trenches. They were then firing mortars at the center hilltop position, where he was. As luck would have it, we got a flight of four US Navy A-7s off the USS Enterprise, I believe. The A-7’s had the most accurate heads-up bombing system then available to us FACs working in Laos.
After briefing the flight, I fired my WP smoke rocket to within one or two meters of the east side of the trench. “Hit dat smoke, cleared hot, number one.” One hit east of the trench, but just east of my smoke. Number two came in from the San Diego approach (southwest) and started to pick up ground fire. Little white clouds (37 mm ground fire) appeared off both his wings. Yet he pressed on and went for the trench with his 2,000 pound bombs.
Bingo! An explosion went off inside the trench followed by a big secondary explosion, also inside the trench. When the smoke cleared, the east trench had disappeared. The ranger ground commander started yelling over the radio that the mortar fire stopped and the NVA had been “vaporized.” He and my backseater became very engaged in “happy” Vietnamese talk. Apparently they did exchange names and units in Vietnamese to write up everyone in the action for military awards. Then they discovered that they knew each other from their officer training back in Saigon. I did not know about this part of the conversation. However, over a month later, my name came out on radio Hanoi with a reward of one million P. for me, dead or alive. According to intelligence officers, one million P. is about 13 dollars, “so forget it.” This had to be from this happy radio exchange in Vietnamese.
We finished the other air strikes and spent a busy morning “probing” all around the hilltop positions to help protect the ranger units. After four hours on station and using up all my smoke rockets, I was replaced by the next FAC and returned to Quang Tri. I had the feeling that I indeed had a good day. At the debrief – post flight I gave extra emphasis to the intell guys that the Navy A7 flight had hit inside a three-meter trench and “vaporized a mortar platoon,” quite a shot!
Then, I got the bad news. As the OV-10 flight commander/acting Operations Officer, I had to find some OV-10 pilot to go out on a second mission. We had to give a 2/Lt. Public Information Officer from Saigon a flight around the Lam Son area. Since the start of Lam Son, all the temporary assigned Hammer FACs at Quang Tri flew a full combat mission every day. The only one I could find was...me. The Lt. said that all he wanted was a brief tour of the combat area so he could take some pictures of the battle sites and the Ho Chi Minh trail. I asked maintenance to completely load up the aircraft, just in case.
After getting the 2/Lt. squared away in the OV-10 backseat, we flew west to come into Laos up by the DMZ and D38, the junction of Laos, South Vietnam and North View Nam. We circled around in the area, showing him the general trail system of the North Viet Namese truck routes. We slowly worked our way south along the trails. Since we always flew in a constant jinks, turns and slips, he requested an occasional straight and level period to take pictures and, no doubt, settle his stomach.
Then I heard Pete Rupport yell for help. He was working the same ARVN ranger hilltop position that I had worked that morning. Pete was a very good FAC in my flight, but he had a very strong Boston, Mass. accent, which “cost him” some joking around. I did not know if I could take this Public Information Officer into a combat FAC mission with me. But this was an emergency, so in we went. We came over to the ranger hilltop and I immediately noticed a large thunderstorm building over it. Pete said that he had an emergency and was running very low on fuel. I was the only FAC available to help, so he gave a quick briefing to me and headed home. The ranger hilltop was now being invaded by NVA tanks, which had advanced inside their outer perimeter. Some U.S. Army helicopters were attacking the tanks, but with little success. There were many other aircraft and choppers flying all around the area, but none on the FAC radio frequency. Also, an F-4 fighter had just been shot down and the crew had parachuted to land just to the southeast of the ranger hilltop position. They were a “Gunfighter” crew from DaNang. They were digging into the ground to hide from the NVA troops that were all around them. There was a lot of smoke on the hilltop and I did not have a Vietnamese backseater to talk to the ground commander. All I got on the ground commander’s radio frequency was a lot of heavy static. The F-4 crew whispered on their emergency radio that they were “dug in and would wait it out.” They knew the situation they were in. As I was about to go to Hillsboro (ABCCC), the C-130 control aircraft, to get some attack aircraft to start the search and rescue (SAR) effort, all of a sudden the rain started and the clouds came down to wipe out all visibility. I went down to a lower altitude to try to break out below the clouds but could not. I was afraid of hitting the hilltop in the clouds, so I turned south to the route 9 (lower altitude) valley and did break out there. But I could not see any approach from the south for fighter-bombers to get into the target area for the SAR, due to the thunderstorm. I now called Hillsboro and gave them a situation report. I circled around the clouds and the hilltop area, but could not find any “visibility” openings from any direction. Now my fuel was running low, so I updated Hillsboro and turned east to return to Quang Tri. When it finally got quiet on the way back, I found myself crying real tears in frustration, grief, and fatigue. I said some prayers for the F-4 crew and the Rangers that I was unable to help, and that calmed me down. That was the only time that I recall that “tears” happened. I said nothing to the backseater all the way home. All I could think about was the very high-spirited Ranger commander that morning. The Rangers were now in full retreat with very heavy losses, at best. The F-4 crew had to be very lucky to avoid capture, “dug in” down at the bottom of the Ranger hilltop. After landing I asked the Lt. if he took any pictures of aircraft. He said yes but from very far away. As we walked into debriefing, I had a feeling that this was a very, very BAD DAY.
I briefed the night O-2 FAC crews and the intel guys on what I had left out there. They both stated that nothing could be done until the next day. I briefed the Hammer FAC commander, Major Vern, and told him that the morning “go” would be a SAR mission, if he wanted a good fight “to pad his resume.” He said that I would fly the first mission and Pete would fly the second, since we were the most familiar with the situation. I don’t remember much about that sad night except that I had a hard time trying to get any sleep at all.
The next morning, the sun was just coming up as I flew up to the hilltop position. There was very thick fog and clouds covering everything. The cloud tops were flat and you could just barely see the Ranger hilltop position just below the cloud tops. I told Hillsboro that we had a weather delay on the SAR, a wait for the sun to burn off the fog. The F-4 crew whispered that they were still there, dug in. After taking bearings on the hilltop, I made several low passes in the fog, over the approximate location of the F-4 crew. I did this to “spook” the NVA and to help the F-4 crew’s spirits. There were no other scheduled missions or activity possible. All I did was make low fog check runs and wait around. The next thing I knew, Pete Ruppert checked in and my fuel gauge told me that it was time to go. So – back to Quang Tri and wait!!
Winston Churchill said something about; they also serve who sit and wait. That day, waiting was not easy.
Finally, Pete returned home to Quang Tri. I went out to meet him as he was parking his aircraft. Pete started yelling to me, “Tom, Tom, you should have seen it! It was really great, you should have been there! It was wonderful! They got them out! The whole thing was really super! They are out, they are out!!” He then explained that the gunfighters first flew in two smoke-laying F-4 aircraft to cover the approach of the Jolly Green rescue helicopters. The sky was full of F-4 aircraft going all around the rescue site. The Jolly Greens went right up the smoke trail to the two crew members, picked them up and went back out the smoke trail without any problems.
I later learned that the lead smoke-laying aircraft was flown by Lt Col Gene McCarthy, the Gunfighter Squadron Commander at DaNang, who I worked for much later at the Air Force Academy.
Pete had quieted down only slightly as he continued, “They are out! They are out, They are probably at the Gunfighter hooch right now, getting drunk as a skunk. The Gunfighters will have one hell of a party tonight!” Pete was happy, I was happy, and we would have gone the 60 miles south to DaNang to join the party; if that was possible. It was not and we stayed.
For a minute I remembered the Ranger outfit and their commander’s joyful voice, telling about a vaporizing mortar platoon only yesterday morning. I don’t think that he made it out, but I never found out. But I had to feel happy about the gunfighter rescue and Pete’s involvement in it. I had the feeling that this was a very GOOD DAY, AGAIN.
Intense joy and very strong sadness are both mixed together in war and you take advantage of happy times whenever you can. You definitely do not have time to stop and smell the roses. As I sat with Pete, I remembered a time six months earlier in the same area of another rescue effort, worked with another FAC, Doc Roberts. Doc and I both were heading out to our respective sectors for the first mission of the day. We heard a Mayday call on Guard freq. and words about an F-4 aircraft with engine fires. The crew said they were ejecting in my sector, which was the Tchepone sector, just as we were arriving at our stations. Doc flew up from his sector, just south of mine. We found two parachutes above us, coming down to land at an area just north of the hilltops that later would be the Ranger battle site. We got to circle around the descending parachutes several times before they hit the ground. Then, we went low, flying around the landing site looking for and trying to draw enemy ground fire. We found none. Then Doc stayed above the downed crew and I zipped over to the South Vietnam border to meet an Army UH-1 chopper crew. They had heard the crew’s calls on emergency guard radio and called us to provide any help necessary. I met them at the border and led them over to the landing site. They soon had both crewmembers on board and returned to the air, still without any ground fire. They headed back to South VietNam to Quang Tri “for breakfast.” It turns out the F-4 pilot was the US Marine Air Wing Commander at DaNang and was checked out in the F-4, the A-4, and the Marine OV-10. He must have felt somewhat better when he saw two AF OV-10s circling around his chute, even before he hit the ground.
Doc went south, back to his sector and I escorted the UH-1 east to the Vietnam border. Next, I heard the Jolly Green rescue crew check in, coming over the fence into Laos for the rescue. They asked me, “where is the downed crew?” I replied, “Sorry, but the crew is in an Army Huey, enroute to Quang Tri for ham and eggs!”
Six months later, here we are with Lam Som 719 and the gunfighter rescue, in the same area but with a lot more troops and guns on both sides. If only these Tchepone mountains could tell their stories!
Forward Air Controllers, FACs, do not get MiG kills, do not become Aces, or get much recognition. Yet, we do our jobs as best we can, in spite of unfavorable situations.
In-country FACs work to save friendly lives during troops-in-contact events, by controlling air strikes against the enemy and observing their positions.
Out-country FACs work to save friendly troops and innocent civilians in Vietnam by stopping the supplies from getting to the Viet Cong. We also direct and assist rescue missions, flying in one of the most intense anti-aircraft fire environments possible. The number of guns, 23 mm, 37 mm, 57 mm, and Sam Missiles, and their intensity, seemed to double every three months. FACs fly slow and low for at least four hours in this intense environment, every day.
We tried to tell the Army advisors to tell the Army helicopter units that their operational tactics would not work in Laos, against the big guns. Army chopper losses were very heavy in the first few weeks of Lam Son, until they backed off and flew like we did. The ARVN planners also put lightly armed Ranger and Airborne units on top of hills and expected them to stop NVA tank units. There is only so much that the Air Force can do to help the ground units.
When the US Congress stopped the American advisors and American units from going into Laos with the ARVN units, this doomed the Lam Son operation to failure. As viewed from above as a FAC, the ARVN forces lacked coordination, cooperation, effective use of their firepower, and aggressive tactics; all of which might have been solved by American advisors. It is as if they were not supposed to win, whatever winning is, there in Laos. The border area appeared to contain none of the people of Laos, just NVA units. The NVA paid no attention to this borderline area that the US Congress was so worried about.
Finally, as the Lam Son operation rapidly expanded, the 504th HQ was forced by very restrictive security, timelines and rapid enemy buildups to pull together all the assorted additional FACs from various units to help perform the Hammer mission without any training time, additional buildings, beds, food or supplies. We had to fly-in Coors beer cases from NKP Thailand to trade with the Army for food rations and sleeping bags. The day before my flight when I deployed to Quang Tri from NKP for the start of Lam Son, we had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do there. After Lam Son was finished, the day before we deployed back to NKP in late March 1971, a construction Red Horse unit arrived at Quang Tri, asking us where we wanted to have the Hammer buildings located. The Red Horse commander was not happy about the lack of coordination.
During Lam Son, every FAC flew a combat sector mission every day, including me. When a new FAC would show up at Quang Tri, after being diverted there from his normal mission, there was added a new sector mission requirement directed to our flying schedule for the very next day. There was NO time for training a new FAC and no down time for me to do the training. It was all we could do to give him a quick briefing and a bed. He was on his first Hammer mission before he had any time to adjust. Halfway through the Lam Son operation, the 504th Group HQ was concerned about this lack of training or orientation and the possibility of an accident in combat. I was advised to start a training program. I replied that this would require a second mission of the day, after the regular five-hour combat mission, for the new FAC and also the instructor, me. What we really needed was some down time for training and that is what I asked the 504th to get for us. The down time never happened. I flew two (second mission) training missions and that was all the time or effort that I could provide. Lam Son ended before this could be resolved. The ground troops were getting badly beaten in Laos and everything was an emergency. All the FAC pilots were at the edge of fatigue. We had started with the idea of maybe six OV-10 missions a day, but that expanded rapidly to approximately forty daily missions with the requirement to put in over half the air strikes possibly available from all US assets in the war at that time. The night mission O-2 FACs were also expanded in a similar manner and with the same fatigue.
The Hammer FACs, to my knowledge, did fly the Lam Son operation without any FAC mistakes or aircraft accidents, due to the skill and efforts of the young FAC pilots/crews. With no training possible, they adapted to the tight sector areas and complex rules to control and direct large numbers of air strikes in support of an out- gunned, outnumbered ARVN force. The FACs did a great job, even though we lost the battle and eventually the war.
However, maximum airpower in the Lam Son area could not make up for these problems of the outnumbered, outgunned ARVN units that were stripped, by the US Congress, of their key American advisors and support units before they were fully combat ready. Thus, Lam Son 719 did not stop the Ho Chi Minh trail system or hold any Laos territory for any more than a few weeks. By the end of March 1971, the ARVN units were almost all back in country and the Ho Chi Minh trail reopened. Both sides claimed victory, but this operation clearly forecast the future of South Vietnam, if American assistance would be withdrawn.