In 1968 I was flying B-model helicopter gunships out of Ninh Hoa for the 48th Assault Helicopter Company (Joker 51). Now, our area in II Corps wasn't exactly the most hotly contested in Vietnam. One of the likely reasons for this was that we supported the 9th Korean Division (White Horse). The VC and NVA seemed to have a great deal of respect for these guys and gave them a pretty wide berth.
During the tour I had heard about Arc Lights, which was the code for a massive B-52 bomb strike, but had never seen one. I had talked to our Forward Air Controller (FAC) who, by any standards, was not an amiable fellow and had asked him what was required to get an Arc Light and would it be possible to get one? At the time I was bugging him about calling in an Arc Light, I was a lowly warrant officer and his response was for me to "f*** off." He gave no explanation of how Arc Lights were called, what the circumstances were, or even that the B-52s were flying out of Thailand. I think he was bitter because he was an Air Force Major flying an OV-1 observation airplane rather than a Thunderbolt or Phantom. I, along with the majority of the pilots and crewmen, got the impression he thought he was superior to us sling wing guys because he had master aviator wings and probably, at some time in his career, had flown the fast movers. Well, that may have been in another life, but right now he was driving an OV-1 and to be quite honest, most of us were not impressed with his flying skills nor his support of the ground troops which after all was what we were suppose to be doing.
One of the missions we liked to fly was called, "first light" and "last light." These missions simply meant that we were airborne with a light fire team (two gunships) and were patrolling the numerous free fire zones at sunrise and sunset. We did pretty good until they figured out what our mode of operation was. Anyway, when we'd take significant enemy fire we'd roll in and shoot up the area and the Korean liaison who rode with us would report it back to the 28th Regiment Headquarters. In order to piss off the FAC, I would also call and ask him for an Arc Light. Sometimes he would be airborne but most of the time he would just be back at our operations tent. I really don't think he liked to fly. His response was always the same, "f*** off."
The only bombs we had seen dropped, and we didn't actually see them dropped was when we were tasked to fly into an area to do a bomb damage assessment after the bombs had already been delivered. It was pretty impressive, but we wanted to see what bombs do while they're impacting. You've got to remember, we're a helicopter gunship with a maximum ordnance load of fourteen 8 pound warhead rockets, (explosion just a little bigger than a hand grenade) four flex mounted M60 machine guns (we hadn't gotten the mini guns yet) and two M60 machine gun door guns. Anything bigger than an AK47 had us outclassed. We wanted to see something that really kick ass.
So to get some bombs dropped, we came up with a plan. We would do the Arc Light ourselves! Maybe it wouldn't be a big Arc Light, but by God we were going to drop some bombs. I think it was actually the crew chief (Sergeant Chamber) who came up with the idea. We were a pretty close crew. "yes sir" and "no sir" were reserved for when we were at the club or around the CO. On the flight line or in the air it was relaxed. Most things, if they were beyond normal procedures, we did by vote with each vote having equal weight. The only ones that didn't get to vote in this democratic process were the pilots and crew of the trail ship. We sort of figured that when their time came to be "gun-team lead" then they could make the rules. By then we would all probably be back home or......... Anyway, it seemed like we were constantly taking votes because we did quite a bit that wasn't "normal procedure." Most likely that was because the four of us appeared to match in personality, temperament, age, and eagerness. We were, according to the CO, crazy and the gun team most apt to get him relieved of command. We were also the gun team with the best record and I have a feeling he always wished he could be out there with us too.
So, the planning for our Arc Light started to gather steam. Lentz (Lenny), the co-pilot had meet an Air Force sergeant during R&R who had something to do with ordnance. He was stationed at Phan Rang Air Base which was about a half hour flight from Ninh Hoa. Lenny got in touch with him and a deal was struck for four 25 pound bombs. In exchange we had to come up with an NVA flag, an AK47 or an SKS, and two survival knives.
We had an NVA flag made up by a local Vietnamese tailor (he was understandably reluctant to make it which cost us a little more than we had anticipated). We took it out and shot some holes in it, got some chicken blood from the mess hall and sprinkled a little of that on it, bleached it out with a solution of ground up heat tabs dissolved in water and then beat it on some rocks to fray the end and bottom out a bit. We also left it in the sun for a couple of weeks. We even made up a story about how we captured it from an NVA battalion headquarters out west of Phan Rang. For a bunch of amateur liars (though I must admit, some of us were nearing professional status) we did a pretty good job. We had the SKS rifle already but it had a broken stock. There wasn't much we could do about that. The survival knives were no problem since we each had one and they were expendable items anyway. OK, so they were really expendable but accountable. Don't get picky!
With our supplies ready, we volunteered for a standby mission down in the Phan Rang area and made contact with the Air Force sergeant. When we arrived, he had the four 25 pound bombs for us. They looked exactly like what I had seen in movies, or at least they did when we finally got them assembled. There were some fins which you had to sit in a bracket and screw on. He gave us four threaded detonators which were propeller looking outfits with safety wire holding the propeller from turning. These were to be screwed into the front of the bombs. The bombs weighed more than 25 pounds which we had not expected. I don't know exactly how much they did weigh but it was a good deal more than 25 pounds. Anyway, the sergeant said they were 25 pound bombs because the explosive equivalent was 25 pounds of TNT which made sense to us. That probably isn't saying much since we tended to believe almost anything someone told us if we were into mischief and it suited our purpose. He said not to put the detonators in before we were ready to drop them because the bomb was armed by the propeller turning. We forgot to ask what altitude we needed to be at to drop them and that caused us some problems later.
The more immediate problem was, the extra weight caused us to have to leave half our rockets and quite a bit of M-60 machine gun ammunition behind because we couldn't get off the ground. The trail ship crew got stubborn and said they weren't going to carry any bombs even if we said we would carry all the detonators. We were stuck with carrying all four and trail ship got the Korean liaison. Well, we figured it would give us some practice since we would have to carry all four when we did our Arc Light anyway.
It took almost a month before everything lined up. Lined up meaning, we needed to find an area where we knew we would get fired on, but not by anything big like a .50 caliber or 37 millimeter, that the FAC would actually be off his lazy ass and in the air at the same time we were, that we would not be on a regular combat assault mission, that we could leave our Korean liaison behind, and finally, that we could get the bombs to the helicopter without too many eyes on us.
After we got the bombs, we began taking every last light flight until we finally got into an area northeast of Ninh Hoa. On three successive evenings we took small arms fire but no hits on either ship. These guys were either lousy shots or there were just a few of them down there. We figured this was just about the best we were going to get. We talked the FAC into going up and hanging around while we went into the area on the fourth night. We got the bombs to the aircraft and put two in each doorway. We had made a bomb ramp out of some 2 x 4's nailed side by side. We needed the ramps so the bombs could be rolled out of each side of the aircraft sort of simultaneously and we also we needed some extension so they would miss the skids.
Now the problem became, how high we needed to be to drop them? We didn't know how many turns the propellers had to make to arm. Our solution was to take the safety wire off and turned them by hand the night before for about half an hour each. Yes, I know that wasn't the smartest thing in the world to do, but in the first place, here we are flying around day after day trying to draw fire, and then flying back into an area we know we're going to get shot at so we can drop bombs from a helicopter. That should give you a clue right away that we weren't the brightest bulbs on the Christmas to start with.
Once in the area it didn't take too long before we drew fire. We rolled in and launched a couple of pair of rockets plus some machine gun fire into the area and trail lit it up pretty good with three pair of HE and two WP rockets. In return we got several positions firing automatic weapons, probably AK47s back at us. We decided that meant they wanted to fight and it also gave the FAC something to think about. I made a call to the FAC and asked if he had seen the fire. He said yes. I asked for an Arc Light or at least some fast movers out of Phan Rang or Tuy Hoa and got the same response as always, "f*** off". Now it was our turn. I told him to get the hell out of our way then and we'd Arc Light it ourselves. I had the trail ship keep fire on the area while we got a little altitude. As we came over what we thought was about the right place, Chamber and Pot (Pot's real name was Neal, but he had picked up the nickname Pot, for obvious reasons, when he started crewing with sergeant Chamber) rolled the four bombs out the doors. We thought three of them exploded but weren't sure about the fourth.
Did we do any damage? Probably not, but the explosions were bigger than anything we could make with our eight pound warhead rockets. The incoming fire stopped for a few minutes. If we didn't scare 'em, we probably confused 'em, or maybe they were just laughing too hard to return fire.
There is usually a price to pay for these stunts and I did get in a little trouble over it. The FAC turned me in to the old man and he blistered my ass. I had been offered a battlefield commission and he threatened to have it stopped and to send all of us back to one of the slick platoons. He didn't! During the ass chewing which, I must admit was a good one with lots of colorful language and references to the fact that my father never married my mother, he mentioned that as a crew, the four of us were only wading ankle deep in the gene pool. I thought that was truly original and used it myself a couple of times later in my career when I had occasion to show my displeasure with a platoon leader or two. We were not allowed to do any first light and last light missions for a month and got saddled with a lot of crappy escort stuff, but it was worth it.
Well, if nothing else, we drank a lot of free beer at the club as we told the story and retold it and retold it. When we finally got a new FAC we started the same Arc Light request campaign again. He also told us to "f*** off" but told us what it would take to get one and we understood. We didn't have a ghost of a chance of ever seeing one where we were. He also said the outgoing FAC had told him to watch out for those crazy bastards. That gave us a warm and happy feeling and we did the "Snoopy dance." You know, if you take war too seriously you'll go crazy or perhaps we were almost there anyway and war just accelerated the process.
Copyright © 1997 Will Stafford