An excerpt from the first sequel to THE SWEET WAR MAN, a novel published in Feb, 2009. Lieutenant Randy Thayer has arrived in Vietnam.
After a quick chow with the other sleepy-looking pilots, Randolph went with the group to the ops hootch. There, as the peter pilot, he collected the signals encoding wheel, which he secured by a neck chain, and observing others, tucked it into his left breast pocket. His Aircraft Commander was CW2 Chuck Crawford, the unit IP who had given Randolph his checkride the previous day. His nickname was Fossel, which was painted on his helmet. Handed the mission sheet Fossel studied it as they started out to the flight line. Groups including the crew chiefs and gunners carried flight gear and the M60 machine guns for each side of the aircraft. Although subdued, there was some horsing around and joking. Randolph absorbed all the details as first light engulfed the flight line, allowing shadows to become forms and moving figures. The mountain, Nui Ba Den, was visible in the distance, but was obscured briefly by billowy, shadow-laced white clouds drifting past its peak.
At the revetment both the crew chief and gunner had arrived moments before. The machine guns had been placed on their pole mounts and 1500-round ammo boxes were emplaced waiting only for the belts to be loaded into the breaches. The crew chief was opening all the cowlings and panels in anticipation of the usual thorough inspection. Both the enlisted men were silent and expectant as Fossel started the preflight by reading the logbook. He asked several short questions in a sharp staccato tone to the crew chief who was responsible for daily maintenance. His answers were clear and precise and more importantly, satisfied Mr. Crawford. Again Randolph was surprised at the depth of the preflight possibly more thorough than for his stay-within the berm checkride. At Fossel’s side, he listened and watched as every major component of the aircraft was inspected. When they reached the tail rotor he was shown the steel cables connected to the foot pedals that controlled the pitch of the tail rotor. Pinching them, he estimated how much tension they had, made Randolph feel them and explained how loose cables adversely could affect the aircraft with a load of troops on board. Any doubt, he insisted, was a call for a technical inspector to have them tested and if necessary, retorted before flight. Randolph assumed, like the IPs at Rucker, this was Fossel’s pet peeve. Still, gladly he absorbed everything. The preflight lasted forty-five minutes. All other aircraft parked in the revetments for the flight were undergoing similar preflight ceremonies.
The company’s main mission was a flight of five with a command and control aircraft and two Cobra gunships. As the ACs completed their long pre flights, each cranked, taking the aircraft out of the revetment, and then hovering several hundred yards to the refueling area. As Randolph had done once before on the last flight school cross country flight, when they picked up Ranger candidates, refueling was hot, the only method used in Vietnam. The aircraft remained running as the crew chief added the few pounds of fuel used during starting. Each of the lift aircraft then hovered to a pre determined spot between the revetments taking their chalk position in the flight. After taking their slot in the formation each Huey shut down to wait for the command to restart. Most of the pilots remained strapped in their seats and waited. Randolph watched the whole procedure, enthralled while Fossel drank a cup of coffee from a thermos he had put in his flight bag.
“Listen up,” Fossel called finally to the two enlisted men, both of whom were Spec 4s. Randolph also returned his attention to Fossel. “We crank in thirty minutes. Do you both understand the rules of engagement?”
“Yes sir,” the crew chief and gunner answered nearly in unison.
“Well, I’m going to tell you anyways.” His expression remained serious as he stared at both of the young soldiers. “You do not fire unless I give the command. If we take fire, you must be able to identify the target before you can return fire. Basically, that still means if I give you the order. Any question on that?”
“No sir,” both answered. They strolled away from the revetment and lit cigarettes. Randolph wanted one but decided to remain with Fossel who was sitting on the cargo deck with his feet dangling calmly finishing his coffee.
“That briefing is something you do before each mission flight. I’ve noticed some ACs are neglecting it. If they kill a friendly while flying in their aircraft, it’s going to be their ass in the sling, especially if they neglected the rules of engagement briefing. The rules can change, but they haven’t in a long time. There used to be free fire zones where you could shoot at anything that moved, but they’ve eliminated them. Most of these kids will wait until you give them permission to fire, but we got a couple that are trigger happy. You’ll get to know them. With this turning everything over to the Vietnamese, things are going toward watch your own ass. You’ve got to be cautious and careful.” It was a long speech from Fossel. Randolph realized he must have thought it was important for him to know.
The flight began to crank, each lift aircraft’s blades began turning. The sound soon overtook everything. The C & C aircraft took off away from the flight, followed by the two gunships. Then the flight lifted taking off in the line-astern formation. As they began to climb, the five aircraft shifted into staggered trail. There were three aircraft on one side, two on the other. They disappeared in the distance before their sound did.
An almost unnatural quiet descended on the flight line after the departure of the formation of five. Calmly, Fossel finished his cup of coffee, and then stowed his thermos in his flight bag which he secured with part of his harness belt. Randolph climbed into the right seat, putting his chicken plate on his chest before strapping in. The gunner who flew on the right side of the aircraft waited to slide the side armor plate forward and then closed the pilot door. This was the first time Randolph had worn chest armor. It felt bulky and he wondered if it would hinder his movement. Like any good IP, Fossel sensed his apprehension and reassured him that there were different sizes of the armor plate, which were readily exchangeable.
Fossel climbed into his side of the cockpit, hesitated over his seat, then stretched over the middle console to the right hand corner of the wind screen in front of Randolph. Quickly using a grease pencil, he wrote four-digit FM and VHF radio frequencies followed by five-digit UHF where Randolph could not fail to see them.
“If I get shot and you have to take over, you get on one of those pushes I just wrote on your window and get help! Tay Ninh West is where we are now. It’s south, south-west of Nui Ba Den. The doc is usually here. You call ahead and tell them to be ready for me.”
“Right,” Randolph said in a positive tone. Fossel lowered himself into his armored plated seat and strapped in, as if Randolph had said nothing to him. The crew chief waited outside to push his side armor forward, and then darted back to his position in the recessed well.
Fossel started the aircraft and backed out of the revetment. He hovered past the area that the flight had lined up, then set it down and told Randolph to take the controls.
“We have to pick up people at Tay Ninh East, then go to the top of the mountain, then north of it to maybe a couple of places. Your geography lesson starts now.” Fossel handled the tower with his floor switch and directed Randolph essentially to stay within the pattern to get to Tay Ninh East, which had its own runway. When Randolph started to make a flight school approach in a slow arc out of habit, Fossel nudged the cyclic to get the nose down.
“We got an empty ship. You got all the power you need. Get us on the ground.” The rest of his approach would have earned him an unsatisfactory at Fort Rucker. He had to pull up the nose when he arrived at a hover to stop their forward movement. Fossel grunted an approval. They hovered toward a small hootch that had a sign announcing Tay Ninh East and boasting connecting flights available to any place in the world.
Five passengers emerged and walked toward the aircraft. There were definitely two separate groups, since they eyed each other suspiciously as they headed for the same destination. Two American enlisted, one Army the other from the Air Force wore worn fatigues. In the other group were three Vietnamese, a captain, a first lieutenant and a master sergeant. The Vietnamese were resplendent in tailored uniforms that had been starched and pressed professionally. Arriving first, the Americans immediately got into the cargo area and took half of the seats the crew chief had installed lining the transmission bulkhead. The two Vietnamese officers took the others seats and the senior Vietnamese sergeant had to sit on the deck. He did not seem to mind the lack of a seat. Hooking his hand onto the back of the left pilot seat, he seemed more concerned with wrinkling his fine uniform than possibly falling out of the ship.
Again Fossel handled the tower and they departed. Randolph could feel the added weight of the passengers. Upon Fossel’s direction, they headed north north-east and began a climb to three thousand feet, the height of the mountain. Fossel dialed in a frequency on the VHF radio and transmitted using their monthly tactical call sign and the aircraft’s numbers. An obvious American voice answered him calmly. Fossel told the friendly voice where they were going. There was a slight pause, and then the amicable tone said there was no firing along their intended flight path.
“When you’re single ship sometimes you forget to get an artillery clearance. In the flight, the C & C does it, so a lot of guys don’t remember until they’re watching rounds impact underneath them. It gets real important if the Air Force fast movers are working near you. Artillery knows about them. That’s part of their clearance.”
At three thousand feet when Randolph leveled off, it was cool and they were heading directly for the mountain. As they got closer, there was a Pagoda structure visible in the mid section. On other parts there was granite colored boulders and ledge visible among areas of dense vegetation.
“The bad guys own the mountain,” Fossel said over the intercom to Randolph before he took the controls. “There are friendlies at the bottom and we operate a radio relay station at the top. We got to drop two of these guys there. Every time the Vietnamese conduct a sweep on the mountain, they get their asses kicked. They refuse to fire on the Pagoda for religious reasons, so the bad guys being atheists use it as a fort. Rumor is the mountain has an NVA hospital and an R & R Center. Supposedly, there are tunnels big enough to drive two trucks abreast of each other. I don’t believe that, though.”
Suddenly, the Vietnamese captain was leaning over the consol between the two pilot seats. He was holding a map and tapped his watch several times. When he realized Randolph was not on the controls, his attention shifted to him. He tried to show Randolph a location on the map. Through the rushing, cool air in English the captain said ‘don’t go to mountain’ and indicated his map again.
“Tell him to sit down. It’s our mission to drop the two Americans off at the top of the mountain. It’s on my mission sheet, if he wants to see it. There’s a guy I want to see up there, anyways. We won’t be long.” Randolph attempted to make the captain understand. Reluctantly, he returned to his seat against the bulkhead. Randolph did not think he had succeeded since the three Vietnamese began an animated conversation in their native tongue.
“I think the bastards are afraid of the mountain.” The crew chief told them over the intercom.
“They should be,” Fossel retorted. “Be real careful around the Black Virgin Mountain. She ain’t a virgin, she can kill you. Now you can see what opts does to us. Our mission is to work for that Vietnamese captain. They have us drop off passengers and don’t tell the Vietnamese anything about it. They get pissed at us thinking their mission is secondary. Opts is sitting back in their hootch and we get the brunt of it. It’s no wonder they don’t trust us either.”
At their altitude there were more scudding cumulous clouds. Fossel dodged a few avoiding going through them. Above the mountain Randolph could see the small outpost at the peak. There were circles of concertina wire, a few hootches and an open PSP pad for landing helicopters. Fossel started a very fast approach to the metal pad. When they were about a football field away and descending almost at cruise speed, a huge white cloud rolled over the top of the peak obscuring everything. Fossel pulled a tight turn reversing their course and climbing. The maneuver was so abrupt the sound of the Vietnamese passengers could be heard above the aircraft noise. The two Americans had huge grins but their faces were rather pale attesting to the fact they were not trilled by Fossel’s abrupt maneuvers. They flew a tight circle as Fossel kept his eye of where the top of the mountain had disappeared. As suddenly as it had disappeared, it reappeared when the cloud rolled away from the mountain. More clouds threatened to do the same thing. Fossel judged how far away from the peak they were, and then began an even faster approach to beat them to the visible landing pad. To stop their forward speed, he decelerated so sharply the nose coming up blocked the view of the landing pad, which was right where he had anticipated it to be. As the aircraft settled onto its skids on the metal pad, Fossel rolled off the throttle to flight idle and barked to Randolph, “you’ve got it,” then unstrapped himself. The crew chief barely got to his door to slide back the armor plating before he was climbing out.
Just as Randolph grabbed the controls in response to Fossel’s command another cloud rolled over the small post obscuring everything. It felt like someone had pulled a white blanket over the wind screens. To keep from getting vertigo in the temporary instrument conditions, Randolph concentrated on one point of his wind screen near where Fossel had scribbled the radio frequencies. The cloud quickly blew away as had the others. Randolph caught sight of Fossel and all five passengers scurrying along a path in between rolls of concertina wire. As they disappeared into another rolling cloud, this one pushed by a stronger gust of wind, the aircraft moved about a foot sideways. Randolph quickly looked to the rear of the aircraft at the cargo area. The gunner sitting on his right side was motionless in his well. The crew chief was somewhere out of the aircraft and away from Randolph’s vision. Briefly, he wondered if he had been hit by the aircraft moving. His attention quickly returned to the controls. At flight idle, if another gust of wind moved them, it might push him off the slippery PSP pad and into the rolls of barbed wire. Making an instant decision he rolled the throttle back to full engine RPM. Now, if he had to, he could hover or even take off, if the wind started to slide them on the pad.
The crew chief reappeared with the increase in RPM. He appeared not to have suffered any misfortune or injury and even strapped himself back into his well on the left side of the aircraft. Finally, the clouds seemed to shift, leaving them with visibility. He saw Fossel emerge from one of the hootches and sprint toward the ship, followed closely by the three Vietnamese. Fossel climbed into his seat and as he was strapping in, the crew chief slide his armor plate forward. He said nothing to Randolph about increasing the RPM, but once ready took the controls announcing it over the intercom. With clear visibility he picked up to about a twenty foot hover directly over the PSP pad and then dumped the nose and dove to ten feet above the surface off the mountain. They passed more large naked boulders and some jungle vegetation, but saw no one. At the bottom of the mountain where Fossel leveled off, they were going red line speed. Randolph had to swallow quickly to clear his ear drums.
“When you’re by yourself out here, there’s two ways you can get from point A to B. You stay on the deck and low level, or you go up above fifteen hundred feet. The idea is to keep yourself out of the bad guys’ sites.” Fossel stayed at tree top level, occasionally varying his flight path to avoid taller trees. They passed one paved road, which had no traffic, and stayed just over the trees. In some areas there were naked gray tree trunks protruding through the vegetation. Like a good IP, Fossel read Randolph’s thoughts.
“They dropped chemicals on this jungle trying to kill it, so they could have better visibility. Then they realized it was dangerous to us, so they stopped using it. The jungle is growing back. That’s why all those dead tree trunks.” They were flying on a course of about 290 degrees. In a few areas there was sparsely vegetated terrain and huge bomb craters, most the size of swimming pools. They were filled with water of various colors from brown to pea green. In areas of little vegetation, Fossel kept the aircraft about ten feet from the ground. At 80 knots, everything went by quickly. Finally, they reached a paved road. Fossel turned onto it. There was some civilian and military traffic on this more traveled road. He kept the road to his left side and climbed another ten feet.
“This is Highway 22. Eventually, the pavement ends. If you keep following it, you’re in Cambodia.” They came upon a star shaped compound with a small paved runway. Surrounding the star contour were row upon row of barbed wire. Near the short runway was a VIP pad. Fossel executed a well coordinated deceleration that zeroed their forward speed as they arrived at the pad. The Vietnamese captain shouted in perfect conversational English they would be on the ground for twenty minutes. The three scampered out of the aircraft, bent over forward until they were away from the turning blades. Quickly, as they straightened up, they walked rapidly into the compound, past a sentry box, that had a Vietnamese soldier inside it. Fossel shut down the aircraft.
The humid air seemed to roll over them. Fossel unstrapped and got out, as the blades slowed to a stop, so Randolph followed. Both the crew chief and gunner also got out of their wells. The eerie silence mixed with the heavy moist air descended on them. It created a peculiar feeling in Randolph. Fossel pulled his thermos out of his helmet bag and poured a cup of coffee. As he drank, he lit a cigarette. In the compound there were bunker type buildings. There were chickens and a few pigs visible as well as apparent civilians, some women and a few children. “Some type of Vietnamese troops live here with their families. Their government must believe they’ll fight to protect them.” Fossel commented dryly.
“Why a big star configuration?” Randolph asked.
“They can get inter-locking fields of fire if they are attacked and somebody can get through all that wire.”
Again the silence and heat descended on them. The enlisted crew did not wander far from the aircraft. They spoke to each other in lowered tones, which neither Fossel or Randolph could hear. Basically, Fossel ignored them, concentrating on his coffee.
“I think our passengers are taking over the fire support bases around here. The 25th’s been pulling out regularly the past few weeks. What I used to do when there were all Americans around here was conduct my own personal reconnaissance. Our Opts doesn’t tell us much about what’s going on out here. So, every place I went to, I’d ask the grunts questions, like when was the last time you had incoming? Or, did you get any sniper fire or probing at the perimeter. Things like that. Eventually, you get a picture of the bad guy activity. Where they’ve been active. You can use that when you plan your routes, if you’re single ship. Use areas that have been quiet.”
Twenty minutes right on schedule after shutting down, their three Vietnamese appeared accompanied by another Vietnamese captain and an American Army captain. They all climbed into the cargo area as Fossel cranked. Again the senior Vietnamese NCO got the cargo floor for a seat as the officer passengers occupied all those available. In the air, they climbed circling the small compound. The American officer, who had brought his own headset, gave Fossel directions where to fly. Fossel climbed to two thousand feet before setting off in the indicated direction. The distance was short. The fire support base, with three 105mm gun emplacements came into view. Fossel commented to Randolph to note the kind of approach he made. It was steep and fast, with a rapid deceleration at the bottom. An opening in the rolls of concertina wire was for helicopters to land. Fossel set them down gingerly. The rotor wash kicked up clouds of dust, so quickly he bottomed the collective to get the blades flat. Almost as the skids touched the ground, the five passengers deplaned and scurried away on paths through the barbed wire. For the next hour and a half, the aircraft sat in the bright sun. Fossel became mildly agitated as the time dragged on. Obviously, he felt they were becoming a target, the longer they had to wait.
“Not much been going on around here,” he finally intimated to Randolph. Glancing at his watch for perhaps the fiftieth time, he added. “I would have gone back to Tay Ninh, refueled and waited there, if I knew they were going to be this long.”
Finally, their passengers reappeared and climbed into the cargo area. They were chattering away in Vietnamese, including their American advisor as Fossel told Randolph to crank, and ordered a steep climb up to two thousand feet. He watched Randolph closely until they were at altitude. Although he felt the load on board, the aircraft had plenty of power and he used all of it to get them up quickly. Fossel seemed to approve of the unorthodox take off, which apparently was conventional in Vietnam.
“If we got hit taking off—that’s when you’re most vulnerable, you could auto rotate back to that pad we took off from. You’d be among friendlies and could get help quicker. You go down in the jungle, even just over the tree line, these jokers might take two days to get to you. They’re gooks. They may be our gooks, but still gooks. Plan your routes in and out of places and think about what happens if you go down.” Fossel turned in his seat and got the attention of the American captain, who was still adamantly involved in conversation with his Vietnamese counterparts. The American was slightly annoyed when Fossel asked how long they would be at the next location. He indicated their time on the ground would not be as long as the first place they had waited. Fossel indicated he did not want to be shut down that long, and said he would drop them off and go and refuel, then pick them up. Further annoyed, the captain related this information to the Vietnamese.
Fossel allowed Randolph to make the next approach. The fire support base was identical to the one they had left. Again there were three tubes set up and lots of barbed wire around the perimeter. Randolph did not have the finesse Fossel possessed. He ended up twenty feet over the landing pad, but quickly lowered them. After their passengers got off the ship, Fossel took the controls, dropped the nose almost into the ground as he pulled full pitch with the collective. The unloaded aircraft shot toward the tree line, some fifty yards distant. He remained right over the trees, dodging some as they speed along, until they found Highway 22. Then they began a rapid climb to two thousand feet and pointed the aircraft south south-east with the mountain clearly in view on their left. When straight and level, he gave the controls back to Randolph.
“That son-of-a-bitch didn’t like being left there without us,” Fossel said of the American advisor. “Take that as another indicator of the security there.”
Randolph handled calling the tower for permission to land in the refueling area after mentally planning his approach. It felt good to be flying again. After their hot refueling, they departed heading back to the area of the fire support base, north of the mountain. Fossel allowed Randolph to do most of the flying. Briefly he remembered he was supposed to be absorbing the geography, but still had to be directed. Randolph had no idea where that fire support base was and wondered how Fossel could remember. Taking the controls once they were near their destination, again Fossel’s approach was fast and hot terminating in a two foot hover over the landing area in the barbed wire area. He was agitated instantly when he got a signal, from an American soldier to shut down. When the blades had fully stopped, Fossel got out and went off to explore. There were still Americans at this base who were intermingling with Vietnamese troops. Their shoulder patches indicated they were with units of the 25th Division. Fossel was gone only fifteen minutes. Upon his return, he quickly lit a cigarette and said to Randolph, “They had in-coming two nights ago. I don’t like this being shut down sitting here on this pad.”
When their party finished their conferences and climbed back on the aircraft, Fossel cranked and did the same spiral climb over the small friendly area. They were directed to two other fire support bases. Both were entirely manned by Vietnamese, so Fossel stayed with the aircraft. He was restless at each stop, which averaged about thirty minutes of shut down time. Even forgetting his coffee thermos, he smoked heavily as they waited. His anxiety spread to the enlisted crew, who stayed near the aircraft and kept their flax jackets on. Looking at their faces and expressions Randolph realized their enlisted crew understood Fossel’s mood about being a sitting duck. When the last meeting was finished, they flew the American Advisor and his Vietnamese captain back to the star shaped fort, then brought the three original Vietnamese back to Tay Ninh East, where their mission was completed. Each time off Fossel called for clearance from the artillery advisory. There was still no friendly shooting in their flight path.
At Tay Ninh West, Fossel took the aircraft into the revetment. Even before the blades had stopped, the crew chief began preparations to pull his daily maintenance inspection. Fossel remained in his seat as he pulled the green-coated logbook from its holder. After asking the crew chief if there was anything he wanted written up and getting a negative response, he signed off the flight. When he was finished, he looked over at Randolph, who had unstrapped and was about to climb out.
“You showed very good judgment rolling the throttle up to operating RPM when you were on the mountain. I saw the ship move on that moist PSP pad. I probably shouldn’t have rolled it down at all.”
Fossel said nothing further as he unstrapped himself and climbed out of the aircraft.