VMO-6 Viet Nam 1966-68
Luck and good fortune.
by Peter Greene
(Formerly Cpl. Greene Crew Chief WB#1)
During my tour in Viet Nam with VMO-6 I was the crew chief on Huey Gunship WB#7 briefly, then WB#1. Over the course of my tour there were many occassions when not only myself but the whole crew (pilot, co-pilot and gunner) might have met our fate due to circumstances other than enemy fire. Thinking back to those days I sometimes cringe at the thought that I was the one who fixed, repaired and maintained the helicopter. Yikes!! There are a lot of moving parts on a UH-IE helicopter, and it only takes one of the parts to fail and the bird falls out of the sky. I often wonder what the pilots and crew would think now after reading this; what if, if some of the possible mishaps/happenings had occurred on the Hueys that we flew on. Situations that were just bad luck and/or were waiting to happen, whether they be human error, mechanical failure, or misfiring the ordnance that we were carrying. But by the grace of God, these possibilities did not happen.
The most frequent occurrence of many events was when one of the rockets (14 in the small pods, or 34 of them in the larger pods), which we carried would become stuck in the rocket pods after the pilot pushed the red "fire" button on the cyclic stick. (The 2.75mm rocket was about four feet in length, with about three feet of propellant and then the war head.) On at least three different occassions after the pilot fired them, one of the rockets would be jammed inside the pod with the propellant was burning forward toward the war head. I'm not exactly sure why, but my best guess is that when the ordnance guys re-armed the bird and the rockets were slid into the pod one of the four guiding fins became loose and was wedged in the tube holding the rocket in place. (When the rocket was fired the four fins deploy outward upon leaving the pod which helped guide and keep the rocket on target.)
At any rate, with antipication of this failure happening, there were a couple safe guards built into the firing system on our gunships. The first one was the pilot or co-pilot had a cable release lever between them that they could pull if this mishap occurred. When a jammed rocket event happened and the release lever was pulled, the pilot would jetison both pods and remaining rockets away from the aircraft. If for some reason that method did not work, then the crew chief or the gunner could reach outside on the rocket and gun support system and pull the release mechanism on their side of the bird and that pod and its remaining rockets would fall away. The first couple times this malfuncation happened on my bird, the pilot was able to get rid of the pods himself by pulling the pod release lever.
But the last time it happened the rocket was on my side, and the pilot's attempt to jetison the pod failed and I had no better luck when I tried to release the burning pod manually. Several times I tried and failed to get the pod to fall away. I'm not sure how long it takes for the propellant to burn its way to the war head but I'm positive that when it gets there the war head is going to explode. I don't know why the pod was hung up under the support system, but I had to climb out on the support and literally kick and push the pod with my foot before it finally broke away and fell. Needless to say, I had three very anxious crew members in my cheering section yelling instructions, telling me that I should hurry up, and to get that burning rocket away from the aircraft. Afterward that last event I made it a point to make sure each and every rocket was loose fitting in the pods, that none of them felt stuck in the tube before we took off.
Another situation happened early in my tour that was rather startling; I was either post-flighting after a mission, or pre-flighting the bird the following morning. The normal procedure at the end of the inspection tour around the aircraft was to climb up on the top of the plane and inspect the rotor head system. This is where the controls from the pilot end up coming through the aircraft and connect to the rotor head; all those except those going back to the tail rotor. The controls end up connecting three rods from the cyclic stick to the rotor head swash plate mechanism. These rods are connected to three different points on the swash plate, which has three U-shaped receptacles which the rods are attached to and are held into place with two and half inch long bolts which are then safety wired so that they can not come apart. Like almost everything on a helicopter, the swash plate is made up of magnesium and aluminum; very light weight material.
Anyway, on this particular day I was up on the bird inspecting the rotor head when I noticed that two of the three U-shaped receptacles that the control rods connect to were cracked on one side. I don't know the reason, if the cause was over-torquing when the bolts were installed, pilot rough handling, or a combination of the two; but one thing for sure, it was only a matter of time before the linkage rod(s) came off and the bird and its crew fell to their deaths. I immediately went to the flight shack to find my section leader and found SSgt. Whitham, (Sgt. Whitham was the Quality Control and Aircraft Safety NCO at the time; (the main reason I remember and recognized Lee's name in later years is because of this event.) A few minutes later I found my section leader (Sgt. Sherrill) and took them both out to the bird and showed them the cracks. I can remember well Sgt. Whitham's reaction when he saw the cracks, "Holy Shit"!!!!! Obviously the swash plate had to be replaced and all other birds were inspected; I don't recall whether other cracks were found on the other birds; but immediately afterwards Bell Helicopter came out with side plates to re-inforce the U-shaped recepticals on the swash plates.
Months later at Quang Tri we were a section of gunships getting ready to take off for Khe Sanh. We were immediately behind the lead bird waiting for them to lead the way out of the revetments and to the runway for take off. As the lead bird lifted off the deck into a hover at about 2-3 feet suddenly (from what I saw was the tail rotor started flying apart) and down came the helicopter with parts flying in all directions. Fortunately no one was hurt. But apparently others who had witnessed the same event saw something different than what I saw; and instead of the tail rotor coming apart first, they determined that the mast (the metal pipe coming up from the transmission to the rotor which holds the two together) must have had metal fatigue and had caused the accident. After the Navy investigated the incident they ordered all the Hueys to be flown to Phu Bai for X-ray examination of the masts; and with that all the available birds were flown to Phu Bai to be tested.
Down at Phu Bai, we had to lift off the rotor head with attached blades, then disconnect the masts from the transmissions and take them to the maintenance shop for X-raying. It was then, while waiting to get the mast back, that I happened to get a good look at the top of the blades on the rotor head. It was impossible to see much of the top side of the blades with the rotor head on top of the bird during routine inspections. But much to my surprise, I noticed that there was a crack all the way across the top of one of the blades about 6-7 feet from where the blade attaches to the rotor head. The crack was at a spot where we had previously taken a round; it had been patched and had since worked its way across the wideth of the blade. It was not noticeable from the ground nor on top of the bird; but it was only after the rotor head was on the ground with the two blades drooping down was it visable. The normal procedure at the time when a bullet was taken in the blades was for the tin-knockers to fill the hole with a fiberglass material, and then we would re-balance the blades, and off we went. The only thing holding the blade together was the bottom half of the blade; in normal smooth flight, instead of drooping down, the blades were pulling the bird up, but there were many times when the ride got pretty bumpy, and very rough . And again it was only a matter of time and how many more flights later before the blade broke apart; and I don't believe that auto-rotation would work with only one blade and a third of the other. Once again, the Good Lord must have been with us. Needless to say, all future hits in the blades called for blade replacements.
Another mishap happened late in my tour as we were in a fire-fight west of Quang Tri. As you would expect when the bullets start flying everyone has something to do. The pilot is busy directing operations on the ground, in a rocket and strafting run, or trying to conduct/control business with the ground units, with other choppers, fixed wing, or whatever needs to be done. The co-pilot is helping, coordinating with the pilot, and/or using his own M-60s in front. The gunner and I are busy on our own sides of the chopper either firing our M-60s, re-loading, or fixing and clearing jammed guns. On my bird I always carried a M-79 grenade launcher with one or two boxes of M79 grenades, as well as my own M-16 and several flips of ammo for it. (I often wondered if the pilot was going to be able to get the bird off the ground because I had too much weight aboard, but we always managed to get airborne; thank God, because I was a firm believer that you can not have enough weapons or ammo.) At any rate, I had not noticed, but in the middle of this firefight the gunner had decided to use the M-79. Suddenly I heard a loud bang and right in front of me was the business end of a M-79 grenade spinning around at my feet. I had no time to even think about it, but I kicked the spinning live round out the door and momentarily wondered why it did not explode. Obviously in his excitement, after he loaded the grenade launcher the gunner had accidently discharged the M-79 inside the bird. It made a 3/4 inch dent in the floor and spinning around looking for a place to blow up. I don't know if the two pilots were even aware of what had happened; understandingly the gunner was quite red-faced and not too anixous to talk about it. I don't remember any conversation about it when we got back; everyone went their own way, but I just kept wondering why we didn't blow up. Afterwards I asked the ordnance guys why the grenade didn't explode, and they explained that after being fired the round has to rotate about 15 times before it is activated. I don't know if spinning around on the floor is the same as rotations but apparently it didn't get to 15. God was with us again.
Another near mishap occurred at Dong Ha. We did not have enough fuel to get back to Quang Tri, and had to stop at Dong Ha for a hot re-fuel. Generally this was not a good idea account the NVA were hitting Dong Ha with artillery on a regular basis, and the sight of a couple of helicopters there would be added incentive. Anyway, we had to stop or run out of fuel. Everyone stayed in their seat with the rotor head turning in case we had to get out of there in a hurry, and I jumped out to re-fuel the plane. I hauled the fuel hose over to the bird and took off the fuel tank cap and shoved the fuel noozle in the tank, and no sooner had I pulled the trigger when I was pushed backwards spraying the whole side of the chopper with JP-4 before I could release the trigger. No one had told us that they had jacked up the pressure on the noozle to help re-fueling more quickly. I almost set the bird on fire. There was aviation fuel all over the side of the aircraft, front and back, with the heat of the jet engine and the exhaust coming out the back it was a wonder it did not catch afire. Obviously the pilots were pretty pissed and I didn't blame them. At any rate, the pilot had the gunner come around and help me hold the noozle in place, we got our fuel and headed out of there. (At the 2013 Arizona VMO-6 mini-reunion, I overhead (Crew Chief) Rick Ault talking about the same thing that had happened to him at Dong Ha, only he was not so lucky; his chopper caught on fire. According to Rick they were going to throw the book at him, but that's another story that he will have to tell. While Rick and I were describing our near fire/re-fueling ordeals, Art Friend (AlfaGolf) added that he had a similar situation re-fueling at Phu Bai.)
Lastly, another near deadly episode suddenly wonders back into my mind. Early in '67 while down at Ky Ha sitting on my cot writing a letter, two or three of the guys in my hootch had returned after being on liberty into the little villa outside the perimeter. They all had their M-14s and side arms. I wasn't paying any attention but one of guys was fooling around and yelled "Hey Greene!"; when I looked up, there he was pointing his rifle at me, as if to shoot me between the eyes. I just told him to knock it off and went back to my letter. Several seconds later we all heard his rifle fire; the damn fool still had a round in the chamber, and it went right over my head and out through the roof of the hootch. In no time at all, the heavies were all there and needless to say the Marine ended up losing a couple of stripes.
In summary, these are some of things that could have happened during my tour and most probably to many of us 45+ years ago; not just the bullets, mortars and rockets aimed at us from the VC and NVA. As I have mentioned before there is a certain amount of luck that brought most of us home. I do believe that I have had my fair share of that good luck, and I am positive that the Good Lord has been looking over me.
Viet Nam - last several months
During my time in Viet Nam our squadron was originally located at Ky Ha, in the southern portion of the I Corps area. In late summer 1967 we made the temporary move to Phu Bai before moving on to our final location at Quang Tri. While at Ky Ha VMO-6 generally, on a daily basis, had gunships positioned at various places within the ICorps, including aboard ship on occasion.
As I remember VMO-6 generally had half the squadron's birds in the "up status" and ready to go, whereas that was not the case with the other VMO's in country. I am not sure why but VMO-6 always seem to have more choppers available; we always had on two gunships on stand-by at Ky Ha and one on Ky Ha medevac, frequently two birds at Marble Mt (VMO-2) or Tam Ky and other sites on quick reaction stand-by, and almost daily four guns on SOG SF Base at Phu Bai (even though VMO-3 was there, but I'm not sure that they ever had a full complement of aircraft).
Being stationed at Ky Ha was a big advantage because of its location; it was a pretty secure area and maintenance on the aircraft was 24/7, and Ky Ha was seldom hit with enemy fire. But that was no the case at Quang Tri. During my time at Quang Tri and until I rotated home in late January 1968 it was lights out when the sun went down. Quang Tri was very vulnerable being on flat ground, and did not have the advantage Ky Ha offered; it was surrounded by enemy on all four sides. Upkeep of the
squadron's helicopters was limited to day time, and the result was the numbers of available choppers was cut in half and even more. One day late in my tour VMO-6 had only three gunships "up"; mine and two others. I don't remember the date but on a heavy overcast day Land Shark scrambled all three birds; account the North Vietnamese are trying to overrun Con Thien. (Con Thien was the northwest corner of the Leatherneck Squadron at the edge of the DMZ.)
All three gunships were directed to Con Thien. When we arrived on station the NVA had already penetrated the perimeter. Due to the low cloud cover there would be no fixed wing on this day, we would be the only air support for the grunts. The three Hueys with M60 machine guns and rockets are all we could offer to the Marines on the ground. I remember looking down, seeing close range firefights and some hand to hand fighting; I could not tell good guy from bad. I remember looking out the right door and seeing one of the other Hueys' top of its rotor blades, it was turned 90 degrees and looked like it was falling sideways; going down. I thought at that instance that whoever was in that bird, that they were going down and were going to crash in the middle of Con Thien. Being a very small forward observation post, Con Thien was only maybe 6-7 hundred yards across with some NVA were inside the wire; I remember thinking where do we shoot, where do we fire rockets, there were no good clear targets. People in the open were Marines fighting the NVA; it was pure chaos. The only true targets were outside the perimeter. It seemed like a blur then but before I knew it we were heading back to Quang Tri, all three gunships, thank God. I don't really know what effect we had that day on the battle taking place below us; but I am hoping that the presence of three gunships overhead might have forced the NVA to back off and get back in their holes. I guess we will never know how Con Thien would have fared that day withoutus.
When we got back to Quang Tri my bird (WB#1) was the only gunship operational (for the next couple days I think). The other two were shot up. (As previously mentioned), I generally don't remember who the crew might have been on this or any given mission; account different crews each day. But at one of our VMO-6 reunions recently Ed Kufeldt was telling this same story
about the day when the NVA tried to overrun Con Thien, and how the bird he was flying that day was the only gunship VMO-6 available afterwards. Capt. Kufeldt was the pilot that day.
On another mission late in my tour the Navy had come up with a little small gadget called the "Sniffer". The Sniffer was a small box that was positioned in the middle of the bird just behind the pilots. It had a small tube which ran out to the front of the bird and "sniffed" the air; which supposedly measured the amount of ammonia and other chemicals given off by human urine. A
Navy technician sat in back between me and the gunner and monitored the readings. The purpose was to try to determine the numbers of NVA and VC who were in the area just west of Quang Tri; this area was off limits and a free fire zone. (Shoot at anything you see.) The mission that day was my bird was the lead down on the deck with two gunships following behind higher up ready to attack if we took fire. We swept the area at tree top level and only about a half mile from Quang Tri's west perimeter when the Sniffer's needle started jumping all over the place; the Navy tech said he thought the area was loaded with enemy. I don't recall whether or not this was before or after the mortar attack when we took all casualties in mid December '67, but no doubt they werethere in force and getting ready for the Tet offensive.
I rotated home in late January '68 and in those months at Quang Tri enemy sightings in the area were almost daily; VC and NVA caught out in the open. Just north of Quang Tri on the south side of the Cua Viet River was a USMC Am-Track Base. I had medevac escort several days in a row and each time a patrol was sent out on the north side of the river they would get ambushed and we would have to go get the wounded out. The terrain was nothing but sand and scattered small evergreen trees and flat with no hills, very little cover to hide behind. But the place alive with VC and NVA; and several days in a row we caught them in the open, out of their tunnels, standing next to and hugging a tree trying to avoid detection. On one of these medevac missions, the transport chopper was on the ground picking up the wounded while we rotated around the area low at tree top level and we spotted 3-4 VC in the open on the beach right across from the Am-Track Base but they disappeared after I got several rounds off. The following day, same senario, the CH-34 was loading the medevacs on the chopper and we were flying around tree top level when I looked down and directly below us were three VC trying to sneak up to get a shot at the medevac chopper. We were only about 20-30 feet over-head. The middle one was tall and was carrying what looked like to me was an anti-craft (37mm) gun, and the two outside guys were carrying ammo and a tripod. I yelled to the pilot and had to
grab my M16 because the M60 would not shoot straight down or right straight back account of the gun guide. I hung out the door and tried to aim back at them with the M16 but we were zipping along at 120 knots and they were quickly out of sight in a couple seconds. The pilot radioed the 34 and informed him of the situation, and after gathering up the medevacs we got out of the area.
Another very frustrating day was late in my tour; we were a sections of guns returning from a re-con insert in the hills west of Quang Tri. Enroute back to Quang Tri Land Shark called and directed us to assist the grunts who were patrolling north out of Gio Linh (the northeast corner of Leatherneck Square) into the DMZ. The patrol had two elements, one unit was moving north up the old railroad tracks and the other on Highway One. The old railroad tracks and Highway One were about a half mile inland from the coast and maybe 100-150 yards apart, parallel, and heading directly north and south; the grunt units were on them and sweeping into the DMZ.
My bird was the lead and the pilot checked in with the ground unit trying to get a fix on their lead's exact location which was stretched out on the railroad tracks. (It was hard to determine locations from the air as Viet Nam is nothing but rice paddies in the coastal low lands, the big difference in the DMZ area is the rice paddies are dried up and abandoned for years account it is NO Man's Land; there was not supposed to be anybody there.) At any rate I thought that I had found the lead elements on the railroad tracks, but looking a little further ahead there were several more people who appeared to be hiding. As I looked down and said to the pilot, "Sir, if these guys below us are the grunts, who are they about 50-60 yards further ahead?''. The pilot immediately banked left for me to get a better look, and as soon as we did all of a sudden the three or four guys further north broke and started running back toward the river and North Viet Nam. They were NVA and had been laying in ambush, waiting for the Marines to get a little closer when we surprised them. And as they took off running they began dropping their rifles,
helmets, back packs and everything else they might have had. And the further they ran the more of them came out of nowhere, joined them and started doing the same thing; running for North Viet Nam. We could see the grunts on the point shooting at them and the pilot called the ground forward observer to tell him we had gooks in the open and on the run; and asking permission to open up. But the guy on the ground wasn't sure about the situation ahead of him and would not give us permission to shoot. And so for the next several minutes we watched helplessly as about 12-15 NVA kept on the dead run back to North Viet Nam. And there we watched them dive off the blown up railroad bridge and swim across the river to safety. Very obviously they were new recruits fresh from of the north, and the only consolation we had was at least no Marines were killed or wounded that day in the DMZ.
After a few more minutes Land Shark called again; the recon team that we had inserted earlier that morning was in trouble and needed to be extracted, so we headed back south. And wouldn't you know it, but a minute or so later ground control called and said that he had accounted for the lead elements, he confirmed that they were NVA and that we now had permission to fire; but it was way too late. I remember sitting there like the rest of the two crews watching them get away and thinking that most
likely they would be back soon after we left. For some of us we had spent a year in Nam basically reacting to VC and NVA ambushes; it was always the same, the enemy sit hiding and waiting for their opportunity to strike when it was to their advantage. For us it was most always watching wounded Marines and/or body bags being loaded on the medevac choppers, or seeing helicopters shot down and burning on the ground, or limping back to Ky Ha or Quang Tri with holes in your bird if you were lucky that day. But on this day back when it would have been our turn, but it wasn't to be. On this day fate was on their side. Oh well.
After finishing the last paragraph above, another mission jumped out at me which has similar results as the previous story, shoot or not. And maybe shed a little light on the ground air controller who would not let us attack the NVA who were out in the open. I was in a similar position, should I shoot or make sure at who I was shooting at. On another mission (same time period) we were again lead on re-supply escort at Con Thien. The transport choppers were taking fire and could not land to off-load supplies, so the pilot I was with told the transport choppers to climb up out of range, and to the chase bird that we were going down on the deck to try and draw fire from the NVA. We were in deed down on the deck; literally below the tree tops, only 10-15 feet above the ground, zipzapping just above the rice paddies and hugging the contour of the tree lines. (To some it might be considered too dangerous to be down that low but in reality anything below 1000-1200 feet the aircraft was exposed to a lot more danger because you are seen from a larger area and most vulnerable; and traveling at 120 knots at low altitude the enemy can not see or hear you until you are right on top of them.) At any rate, while zipping along in and out of the tree lines both the gunner and I and the co-pilot were up on the guns, safeties off, and ready to shoot at anything we saw. Suddenly on my side I spotted two NVA sitting in their fox hole at the base of a tree. They were ony 50-60 feet away from us, so close I could see the whites of their eyes; one was a machine gunner and the other was his tender. But for that instance, I was not exactly sure where we were, who they were, NVA or Marine. I immediately looked up and around to acclimate /orientate as to where we were; but in a flash it was too late, they were out of sight; we had gone too far and I had missed my chance. I'm 99 percent positive they were NVA, a machine gunner and his assistant; but what if I had been wrong. I mentioned this espiode to give the air ground control officer his due; he wanted to be sure that he did not call in our air strike on the Marines he was supposed to be protecting.