Up, Over, Sideways, Down
The following extraction mission was caught on tape by a Huey pilot. The recording graphically captures how a routine flight could quickly become a struggle for the survival of the men on the ground, and an all-out effort by the men in the air to do everything they could to support them -- wishing they had done more.
On January 29,1971 I had an uneventful flight in my OV-10 from Pleiku to Kontum to pick-up my Studies and Observation Group (SOG) rider, John "Plasticman" Plaster, a tranquil flight that foreshadowed none of the events to follow that day. After Plaster was snugly strapped in the back of the Bronco, we were off for a day of fun in the sun in Laos.
The flight was scheduled as a typical Prairie Fire mission in support of SOG's Long Range Patrols (LRPs). SOG teams were normally composed of three US Army Special Forces and 10 Montagnards. One-Zero was leader, the One-One assistant lead and One-Two the radio operator. We were to make radio contact with two teams and confirm their positions by map reading and triangulation (pre GPS) and were scheduled for one extraction.
Once we were "over the fence," we found Recon Team (RT) Hawaii in a heavy fire fight with a NVA mortar company. So much for a normal extraction! Plasticman and I relieved the O-2 on station and got busy.
I coordinated UHF communications with C-130 Hillsboro for fighter support while monitoring two FM frequencies with Plasticman to communicate with the team on the ground and the inbound helicopters.
Hillsboro sent us an A-1E two-ship and since we were deep into Vietnamization in 1971 the support we received was Vietnamese. Batman Charlie was a flight of two excellent pilots who were just as capable as their American counterparts at performing air-to-ground, close-air-support for troops in contact. Communication was slow with the Vietnamese pilots and instructions had to be precise and strong. (On one occasion the language barrier landed me in a one-and-a-half with a Vietnamese two-ship after I told them to leave the area so I could asses the damage. They were headed east as they broke through the haze for their own assessment, and I was going north - I split the two!)
We used Batman Charlie to bring the Prairie Fire Emergency back to a Tactical Situation. Batman Charlie silenced the mortars with a few 500 pounders and some napalm as well as a little 50 cal.
While Hawaii One-Zero Les Dover settled down for lunch, the extraction got underway with Panther 36 Cobras and White Flight Hueys on station.
I initiated the routine of Cobra 20 mike-mike and rocket passes. Plasticman was settling into communications with the Hueys on picking up the team's panel and briefing them on the best heading for an approach into the hot landing area, now bristling with plenty of small arms: AK-47s, RPGs and the SOG team's response.
Minutes after the Hueys arrived for Hawaii, all hell broke loose! The radio filled the airwaves with urgent calls from Colorado One-Zero, Pat Mitchell, who was eight miles to our Sierra: "Tango Papa, Tango Papa!" "Covey, Covey, Covey!" This was his first call for help after being overrun by an NVA attack. The initial attack had left Colorado's One-One David "Lurch" Mixter dead and One-Two John St. Laurent wounded by an RPG. There was quite a bit of confusion about who was actually making the emergency call. Hawaii was yelling range and direction over ground fire and the Huey door gunner's grunting M-60, so we had trouble confirming the call for help.
About a minute later we received a second panicked call from Colorado One-Zero Pat Mitchell: "Prairie Fire, Prairie Fire!" He was breathing heavily as he was trying to tow his dead assistant and seriously wounded radio man to safety. Even though they had killed ten of the enemy, they were running for their lives. Once we cleared the confusion over who was in a Prairie Fire and who would lead the Hawaii extraction, we lowered the nose and hauled ass.
The A-1s had returned to Pleiku for more ordnance, and we turned the Hawaii extraction over to the Cobra lead over his protest. That was one of the great thrills of being a FAC -- Air Force Lieutenants occasionally got to tell Army Captains what to do!
It was a long eight miles. The Bronco's two turbo props couldn't get us to Colorado fast enough. I got the M-60s and all four pods of Willy-Pete and HE rockets armed to hot.
I was back on the UHF for any available air support and they found Devil 61, a flight of two F100s, who were bingo bombs but still loaded with 20 mike-mike.
"Evade, Evade!" Plasticman pleaded with Colorado to do their best until we arrived on station. "Hold out!" he begged.
Colorado was obviously in deep shit and let us know. An anguished "Fuuuuuck!" came over the radio punctuating the team's frustration.
Ten minutes after Colorado called Prairie Fire we arrived on station. "Pop Smoke," Plasticman ordered. Colorado's green smoke filtered through the dense, Laotion canopy near a small clearing. "Got your smoke," Plasticman acknowledged. "Where do you want the fire brought?"
"Two of us together . . . Behind a log . . . Charlie's still on our ass! 50 meters . . . South!"
We were in hot with all four unsynchronized M60s pumping out as much lead as we could muster. Pop, pop . . .pop, pop, pop . . . Pull up, Roll over, Pull sideways to put the front end where the ass end was, let the nose slice down, (with lots of rudder) and back on target with every thing we had and wishing for more.
"Bring it in Closer!" Colorado demanded.
Shit, I was already laying it right on top. Plasticman told me to hit the smoke again.
Up, over, sideways, down.
Pulling out of a gun-run, I worried over the intercom to Plasticman that we might be putting holes in the good guys. Plaster assured me it was suppressive fire - we were trying to keep everybody's, mostly Charlie's, head down until the Cobras and A1s got back. HE rockets in the tree line and M60s on the smoke.
"We're gonna be doin' it again," Plasticman consoled the troubled warriors.
Up, over, sideways, down again and again until the Cobras cleared Hawaii.
Devil 61 checks in and we bingo their guns.
"Gimme another smoke . . . Cobras on station" The Cobras had secured Hawaii and were now ready to put 20 mike-mike on the bad guys. Back into orbit and coordinating Panther 36's Cobra set-up. White lead had to drop off Hawaii at Dak To and refuel before we could extract. The added firepower from the Cobras allowed Plasticman and Colorado to catch up.
"Lurch is dead," Colorado lamented.
Mitchell wanted to fight for the body of his fallen comrade, but Plasticman urged him to sit tight. "Forget about the dead, we're worrying about you now."
Batman Charlie arrived back on station so we coordinated a couple of 50 cal passes to let the NVA know we were at full strength, and then I held the two-ship high with White lead inbound. The Cobras were off, the panel was out and the Hueys were on final and Cobra 36 was back on their wing. Lots of ground fire and the door gunners were busy. The NVA was probably shooting at us during our runs, but the OV-10 is so noisy you can't hear it and you're too busy to care.
Things started to slow down after about 20 minutes of intense fire. The Montagnards had melted into the jungle to survive leaving Mitchell and Laurent, the two remaining members of team Colorado, on their own until the extraction started. "Tango Papa, they're gonna need to help my man on board," Mitchell relayed to Plasticman.
White lead set down to pick up the exhausted warriors. The door gunner took a round through his M-16 and dusted off a shrapnel souvenir in a crease in his pants. An airburst slightly confused the extraction, but as White lead explained over the radio it was just "some dumb fucker" who threw a grenade out of the helicopter.
Before we started back to Pleiku, Plasticman had one more obligation. "Please confirm. Lurch is dead?" he asked Colorado. The message was relayed through White lead to Mitchell who was now recuperating in the relative safety of the Huey.
"Affirmative, Lurch is gone." White lead reported.
David "Lurch" Mixter was the last SOG recon man lost in Laos. The mission was turned over to the Vietnamese with our support on February 7th while Melvin Laird reported in Time Magazine that "There never have been and never will be Americans on the ground in Laos".
The extraction was complete, so we Winchester'd the A1s' napalm on the tree lines and clearing just to say goodbye.
The next time I was in Kontum, Pat Mitchell thanked me for my help and asked me if I wanted to "run" with them next time. I told him thanks for the offer, but I had a bum knee.