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Charlie Alpha: A Helicopter-borne Combat Assault in Vietnam
The troopers of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) made many heli-borne assaults in Vietnam. We called them CAs - short for combat assault - yet even many veterans don't know how complicated an operation they were. This article is written from the viewpoint of the company commander of Company C, 2nd Battalion 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Known by our radio call sign of Tall Comanche, C 2/5 operated in Tay Ninh province during the spring and early summer of 1969.
A typical CA might start with a morning radio call from my boss, a lieutenant colonel and the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry. It might sound something like this:
"Tall Comanche Six, this is Prescott Arizona Six, over."
My RTO (Radio Operator) would acknowledge the call by saying "Prescott Arizona Six, this is Tall Comanche Six India - stand by one", then give the "horn" (radio handset) to me .
"Prescott Arizona Six - this is Tall Comanche Six. Over."
"Arizona Six. Lean Apache had some minor activity last night. We're going to drop you in west of his AO and see what you can stir up. The three air is trying to get some birds to move you. We'll give you an ETA when we can. We've found a Papa Zulu for you - have your Six India standby with his SOI. Over."
"Comanche Six - roger. When do you want us to move to the Papa Zulu? Over."
"Arizona Six. Begin your movement when you're ready. Over."
"Comanche Six. Roger - ready with the SOI. Standby." (1)
|Photo courtesy The First Team, Volume 2, Number 3, Fall 1969, page 8. Individuals not identified.|
This bit of military radio-speak was a fragmentary order - or, as we called it, a frag order - meant to give us the "heads up" to prepare for a heliborne combat assault.. The battalion commander told us that Company A had a minor exchange of gunfire during the night, indicating the enemy was in A Company 's area. The boss wanted us to move to a position west of A Company in an attempt to locate the enemy. To do that, we would need helicopters. The commander's staff officer (a captain) in charge of coordinating combat assaults was the S3 Air, and the colonel had him calling division headquarters trying the schedule some helicopters for us. While he was busy doing this, we would "hump" through the jungle towards a clearing Arizona Six had spotted from the air. This clearing was the "Papa Zulu," - radio speak for the letters P and Z, indicating a pickup zone. It was the place helicopters would pick us up to ferry us to the new place - known as the Lima Zulu, or Landing Zone, west of A Company . He was going to give us the map coordinates of the LZ in code so the enemy wouldn't await us in the clearing. That's why he waited for my RTO to have his SOI ready. This little code book was worn in a small waterproof pouch and was the only classified material carried in the field.
|We might have to "hump" through the jungle to find an open field large enough to accommodate the helicopters. After getting on the helicopters at the PZ, we would enjoy that cool, but nervous trip to the LZ - and hope it was green.|
The 1st Cavalry Division was different from most other units in Vietnam. While other "grunts" flew in helicopters from time to time, they depended on other aviation units to support them. But, the 1st Cav had its own helicopters. That meant we flew more often and could respond more quickly than other divisions. Only after the 101st Airborne Division was converted to an airmobile division in July, 1968 would another division have the same capabilities as the 1st Cav.
RTOs were sharp people. In a lot ways, they functioned as a alternate commanders. As the company commander, I had two RTOs - one for the battalion network (other company commanders, the battalion
|Robert Stanko served as one of the company RTOs in the late spring and early summer of 1969. Prior to being a company RTO, he served as LT Patacca's RTO in 1st Platoon.|
commander, and some of his staff), and one for the company network (the platoon leaders and sergeants, the First Sergeant, etc.). These guys were not specially trained to be RTOs - they were just smart and dedicated and learned their craft "on the job." Besides being smart, they had to be strong. Not only did they carry all the gear the rest of the troopers carried, but also carried the 30 plus pound radio - and even spare batteries. A close bond existed between the commanders and their RTOs.
Having overheard my conversation with the battalion commander, the RTO with the company radio would have anticipated my needing to see the platoon leaders to give them a "frag order." In a few moments, the three platoon leaders, their platoon sergeants, the artillery forward observer, and of course the company First Sergeant, 1SG William "Red" Allen, would be standing around awaiting orders. It might sound like this.
"Apache had some contact last night and Arizona Six wants to insert us west of their AO. From looking at the map, that should put us near the Mustang Trail, north and east of LZ Ike about 10 clicks. Our PZ is at XT155648. We don't have the birds yet, but the 3 Air will let us know when they have an ETA. Let's saddle up in three zero. We'll move in a column of threes, with Two Six in front, then head, One Six and Three. Two Six - when you get to the PZ, hold up short and let me know. When we get the birds, we'll have Two Six secure, with One Six going first, then Three Six, with Two Six on the last lift. Birth Control - go out with One Six, I'll go out with Three Six. Top - go out with Two Six. Questions?"
Usually, there were no questions because a "frag order" was just that - it gave only a fragment of the information needed to carry out the mission. These men knew they would get more information. In the meantime, each had work to do. The first was to move from our current location to the pickup zone (PZ) Arizona Six had located for us. I had given the company 30 minutes to start moving, and there was much to be done.
The Platoon Leaders were usually young lieutenants with little military experience. (2) Each commanded a platoon of about 30 to 40 men. They received strong support from their more experienced Platoon Sergeants. A platoon had three squads, each led by a Squad Leader. The lieutenants would go back to their platoons, gather the squad leaders around and give them a frag order. He would tell them the same basic information I gave them, but would also tell them the position of each of the squads during the "hump" to the PZ, give a compass azimuth (direction) to the the squad leaders, and other information. The Platoon Sergeant would work with the the Squad Leaders and assign troopers to the helicopters. As each Huey helicopter (called a slick) could carry six or seven fully equipped troopers, care had to be taken to divide the troops into proper sized groups without breaking up the squads in such a way that they wouldn't be able to work together as soon as they were on the ground.
The forward observer (FO) was a lieutenant with the responsibility of directing the big artillery howitzers located at various fire bases around us. Along with his recon sergeant and RTO, he would insure we had defensive fires to help us should we be attacked at the PZ, and he would coordinate with the captain assigned as the artillery liaison officer at battalion level to be sure he knew what fires would be laid down at the LZ just before we landed in the new area. The artillery folks were not technically a part of Comanche - they were members of Battery A, 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery. The FO's call sign was Birth Control 28, and he stayed in my back pocket. The Recon Sergeant could operate independently when the company was split using the call sign Birth Control 28 Delta.
The First Sergeant would work with the Platoon Sergeants to assign the individual troopers to helicopters. We would have six slicks move us, and they would do it in shuttle fashion. Each shuttle was called a "lift," therefore First Platoon would go on the first lift, Third Platoon on the second lift, and Second Platoon on the last lift. A complicating factor was fitting in the company headquarters, artillery personnel, and the mortar squad.
In the meantime, the individual soldier - the grunt - tried to finish eating his breakfast of C rations and maybe drink some instant coffee, clean his weapon, and generally get ready to move. Claymore mines, set out in front of the company during the night, would be retrieved and packed. Ammunition would be checked to be sure it was clean. Hand grenades were checked to be sure the pins were bent and not straight. He might even have time to reread the letter from his girl friend received two weeks ago.
Thirty minutes after my initial frag order, I would tell the company RTO to call the platoons and have them move out. He would call "Comanche niner-niner - Six says to saddle up and motivate" and we would begin to move. Comanche was organized into three rifle platoons (3) plus the company headquarters and mortar squad. Our movement through the jungle looked like this: The trooper in the lead was called the point man. He not only risked being shot at by an unseen enemy, but he had to hack his way through the jungle with a machete. Point men had to be rotated very often because it was a grueling and physically draining job. Funny thing about point men - some guys just seemed to like it. They volunteered for the job and usually got it. Good point men were hard to find, and they were universally admired by the other men.
After a couple of hours of "humping," the 2nd Platoon Leader (2/6) saw he was coming up on a big open field. He stopped his troops and advised me we were probably at the PZ. I agreed with his navigation, and the company was told to stop and put out some security. After a radio call to battalion, we found out we had helicopters scheduled with an estimated time of arrival (ETA) within one hour. I didn't want anyone out in the open field for fear of letting the enemy know we were there and would soon be picked up by helicopters. The big aluminum birds were easy targets just before they touched down to pick up the troops, so we waited for the last possible moment to enter the open PZ. In the meantime, Arizona Six, his S3 Air, and the artillery liaison officer were up in the air in the commander's command and control helicopter. (4) They would oversee the CA from 5,000 feet up and coordinate the activities of Tall Comanche, the artillery, the troop carrying "slicks," and the helicopter gun ships.
Soon, I got a call from Arizona Six:
"Tall Comanche Six, this is Prescott Arizona Six. Over."
"Prescott Arizona Six - this is Tall Comanche Six. Over."
"Arizona Six - Comanche 6 - standby to copy the location of your Lima Zulu. Over."
The battalion commander would then transmit a coded message with the map coordinates of our Landing Zone along with the direction he wanted us to travel once we were on the ground. That gave me a chance to call the leaders of Comanche around and give them the rest of the information they did not get during the first frag order.
"Arizona Six - Comanche, your birds are in the air inbound your location. ETA one five minutes. Over."
"Comanche Six - roger. Moving onto the PZ. Over.
"Arizona Six - Roger. Out."
With that, I got on the company radio network, telling the Platoon Leaders and others to move out onto the PZ. While it might appear to be a bit chaotic, each group moved according to the plans laid out in the frag order.
The second platoon - the one that had been leading the "hump" - would split. One squad would walk through the wood line at the edge of the PZ, and the other two in the other direction, also just inside the wood line. Their job was to build a big circle. Once they had done that, they would move into the field, but only a short distance in from the wood line. By looking outward, they would provide protection to the rest of us while we boarded the first two "lifts" of helicopters. Part of that security was to place claymore mines forward of themselves, then detonate them as they ran back to board their own lift. The First Sergeant would be with that platoon, along with the mortar squad. In most cases, the artillery recon sergeant, Birth Control 28 Delta, would also be with the last platoon to be sure someone could direct artillery fire should the PZ get hot. (5)
Second platoon would just about have the ring closed when first platoon would enter the open field. They would split into six groups - one for each of the six slicks - as they would be the first group to be picked up and taken to the LZ. The 1st Platoon Sergeant would have also made room for the FO and his RTO. His presence was to insure we had someone on the ground able to adjust artillery fire should the LZ be hot.
The third platoon would also enter the LZ, but would spread out a bit more and place themselves between the six groups of 1st platoon and the protective circle of 2nd platoon. The Platoon Sergeant would assign me and the two RTOs to one of the birds in the second lift, and find a place for the company senior medic as well.
While all this was going on, the helicopters were on the way. We were often supported by the the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion. The commander of the troop-carrying "slicks" would have changed the frequency of his radio and called us on our company frequency (called a push or freak). It might sound something like this.
"Tall Comanche Six India - this is North Flag Yellow One on your push. We're inbound your location. Over."
"North Flag Yellow One - Comanche Six India. Roger. What's your ETA? Over."
"Flag - we're about zero five out - go ahead and pop smoke."
"Comanche - standby. . . . . . smoke out."
At this, the RTO (or someone else) had thrown out a smoke grenade. It produced a lot of billowing colored smoke. The purpose was two fold: it would be a method of identifying us and it would tell the helicopter pilots the wind direction. To prevent the enemy from fooling the pilots into landing in the wrong place, the ground troops always threw the smoke, then asked the pilots to identify the color.
"Roger, Comanche. I've got your goofy grape." (Yes - we really talked like that.) (6)
"Affirmative on the purple smoke, North Flag."
About that time, six "slicks" would appear overhead. They would usually be flying in two columns, one slightly behind the other. (Formations would vary according to the situation and would be dictated by the flight commander.) The six groups of 1st Platoon would be arranged in the same formation, with each group separated by the same distance as the helicopters. Each of the groups had now split in two so that the helicopters could be boarded from both sides at the same time.
The slicks would be escorted by Cobra helicopter gun ships. These fearsome critters were capable of bringing pure hell down upon the enemy. They were armed with rockets, automatic grenade launchers, and a mini-gun. This special machine gun was a modern adaptation of the multi-barreled Gatling gun. They would not use those guns at the PZ for fear of hitting friendly troops, but they were ready if we needed their help.
As the slicks made their last lazy-looking turn into their "final,", one trooper in each group would stand up in the field with his M-16 rifle over his head. His job was to provide a guide for the helicopter pilot picking up his group. Even though he might make motions with his arms in an effort to help the pilots, I always felt the pilots basically ignored them and just used them as a guidepost for landing. The birds would not be on the ground long - the troops would start running in a crouch for the open side doors before the skids even touched the ground. Being careful to avoid the tail rotor, they clambered on quickly. The helicopter crew chief and door gunner would tell the pilot when to "pull pitch", and off they'd go into the sky. The doors were never closed, and nobody ever fastened seat belts. It was too loud to talk much, but the air was so nice and cool up above that jungle.
|This shot was taken from Bob Hutton's 8 mm film after it was put on video tape. Note the trooper's feet hanging out the door. Because of the mountains in the background, it appears this was taken while Comanche was operating in II Corps, not in III Corps.|
But while the lead platoon was in the air, and the rest of us sat on the PZ, other folks were busy. Up in the "Chuck Chuck", the artillery officer was bringing steel rain down on the new Landing Zone. His job was to saturate the rim around the open field with howitzer fire in an attempt to kill any enemy that might be lying in wait for the incoming helicopters. At a minimum, he would have six 105mm guns firing, and often had more. (An artillery battery was stationed on each fire support base. A battery consisted of six howitzers.) He would be firing traditional artillery that exploded on impact with the ground, but he would also call for some of the shells to explode above the ground, causing hot shrapnel to spray the area. The "LZ prep" would go on for 15 or 20 minutes, and the gun crews would be firing the guns just as fast as they could stuff them with fresh rounds. It was a hellish display of firepower. If you watched an LZ prep, you wondered how anything could possibly live through such an ordeal, but the enemy often did.
Of course the helicopters had to steer clear of this steel rain, so the assistant flight commander would be listening to the artillery radio network and would be aware of the trajectory of the shells. At this point, a CA called for perfect coordination. The idea of the LZ prep was to keep the enemy's head down. If there was too much of a time lapse between the cessation of the artillery fire and the landing of the slicks with their load of troops, the enemy would have time to get weapons in place and shoot at the helicopters and the troops. If the helicopters tried to land while the artillery was still being fired, they ran the risk of being hit by a shell. Timing had to be perfect. By listening to the artillery radio net, the helicopters knew when the prep was about to end. Also, the very last round fired by the artillery was always a white phosphorous (WP, or Willie Peter) round set to explode in the air.
|The final artillery round of
white phosphorous can be seen to the right of this slick.
Picture from The First Air Cavalry Division Vietnam, Volume 1, August 1965 to December 1969
When that last round was fired, the message "tubes are cold" was sent out, and the helicopters moved in close. It was desirable that the slicks be near the LZ when the WP round went off. The bursting WP was also the signal for those deadly Cobra gunship to fly in low with rockets, grenade launchers and mini-guns going. They would rake the wood line as the slicks approached. As they got near the ground, the M-60 machine guns mounted on the slicks would also open up. The noise level approached the unbelievable. The troops were also itchy to get off that big flying target, so they would often be outside the helicopter, standing on the skids. As the slicks approached the field, they would "flare out" just before touching the ground. Normally, the skids never touched the ground - the troops jumped off and ran towards the tree line. The M-60s on the slick were now quiet because there were friendly troops on the ground, but now the grunts opened up with their own weapons.
The Cobras now had to stop firing for fear of hitting the troops. The slicks were now gone. If there was no enemy fire, the platoon leader would radio and inform me the "LZ is green." Of course, everyone else was listening in as well. The lieutenant's job was now to organize the men on the ground in a circle and secure the field the rest of us to land. The quiet was deafening - and welcome.
Now the shuttle began - the birds went back to pick up the second lift, and then the third. If there was no enemy contact, we were all one happy family again within 30 minutes or so, and we would be heading off that open field in the direction Arizona Six wanted us to search.
Tall Comanche, April 1969 to August 1969
(1) The radio call signs in the 1st Cavalry Division were kept simple. In the early months in Vietnam, there was an attempt to keep traditional radio security procedures and change call signs and unit radio frequencies on a regular basis. The high mobility of the 1st Cav meant units moved around very swiftly and constantly wound up on another unit's frequency. Helicopters could not always identify ground units because call signs had changed. But, in an operation with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in November, 1967, things got so confused that it was decided the major ground units would have one set of calls signs, and they would stay with them. (Source: Angry Skipper) Therefore, throughout the division, unit calls signs stayed the same and only locations, logistic requirements and other secure information was coded. The 2nd Battalion 5th Cavalry used the following: the battalion headquarters and Echo Company's Reconnaissance and Mortar platoons were Prescott Arizona, Company A was Lean Apache, Company B was Ridge Runner, Company C was Tall Comanche, and Company D was Ready Navajo. All commanders were Six, therefore the battalion commander was Prescott Arizona Six, Company A's commander was Lean Apache Six, etc. Battalion staff followed their numerical designation so that the Intelligence Officer (S2) was Prescott Arizona 2, the Operations Officer (S3) was Arizona 3, etc. The Battalion Executive Officer (who was located at the main base camp in Tay Ninh) was Arizona Five. The Battalion Tactical Operations Center (TOC) RTO was 65. The companies followed a similar pattern: the Company Commander was 6, the 1st Platoon Leader One Six, 3rd Platoon Leader was Three Six, etc. Sergeants were Mike, thus the company First sergeant was Six Mike, the 2nd Platoon Sergeant was Two Six Mike, etc. RTOs added India to the call sign, thus the company RTOs were Tall Comanche Six India, and the 1st Platoon Sergeant's RTO was Tall Comanche One Six Mike India. (Return to narrative)
(2) If the lieutenants were considered young, it should be pointed out that I was only 25. Commanders are traditionally referred to as "The Old Man." I remember hearing myself called that for the first time while at Ft. Campbell, KY, in 1968. I was all of 24 years old. (Return to narrative)
(3) Other veterans will recall a different organization. Earlier, the company consisted of three rifle platoons plus a mortar platoon. Each rifle platoon consisted of three rather than four squads - the weapons squad was dispensed with and each rifle squad had its own organic machine gun. Owing to the very dense triple canopy jungle we often operated in, the 81mm mortar was all but useless. Instead, we kept one mortar squad made up of short-timers. They carried one 60mm mortar, but no tripod or base plate. The 60mm could be fired by a trigger, and a steel helmet was all the base plate needed. They carried only illumination rounds - enough to tide us over in a night time firefight until artillery illumination rounds reached us. The mortar squad functioned as a ready reaction force within the perimeter at night, and was also the group designated to off load the resupply helicopters. Though there was usually a sergeant or two in the squad, they actually worked for the 1st Sergeant. (Return to narrative)
(4) The Command and Control helicopter was known as the "chuck chuck." By abbreviating "command and control" to the letters "CC,", they would then be translated to the phonetic alphabet used by the military - - Charlie Charlie. No American could resist changing Charlie to "chuck." (Return to narrative)
(5) A "hot PZ" , or an attack while on the pickup zone, was fairly unusual, but it did happen. One June 9, 1969, Comanche was in the middle of a CA when it happened. As the second lift boarded the helicopters, they began to receive fire. With the noise of the helicopter blades, I didn't realize we were under attack until I saw three little holes appear in the skin of the aircraft - right in front of me. Then I noticed green tracers. We had to speak strongly to the helicopter pilots to turn around and deposit us on the ground, but failure to do so would have stranded the one remaining platoon. The bond that existing between the helicopter crews and the grunts was strong - they knew that if I said we needed to land, then they trusted me enough to land. In my two tours in Vietnam, I never once heard of a helicopter crew that wasn't up to the incredible chances we asked them to take. (Return to narrative)
(6) To appreciate what the helicopter pilot sounded like, talk in the most nasal tone you are able to produce. Now, slur the words a lot. Finally, grab a pinch of your cheek and flap it against the side of your mouth while you talk. Be sure to use a lots of "Aaaahhh" in between real words. (Return to narrative)
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