21. The LRRP Mission Excerpts from a novel by Andre Garesche

It was November 1970, cold for Vietnam. It was the monsoon season. Low ceilings, drizzly. Not much flying. It was like everything had ground to a halt. The summer had been busy. I had 25 missions between July 20th and August 12th. Several of us had been awarded the Air Medal for that stretch of duty. We got it sometime in late September or early October on the basketball court of the company compound. The whole company came out in formation. It was the first time I had ever seen the 134th in a company formation. The gun crews were in more ragged and soot covered flight suits compared to the two slick platoons. Five or six of us were called up front and given our medals. But now it was winter.


Charlie didn't mortar us anymore, although we were still waiting for one every night. Mark (Igoe) and I along with our crews took over for the previous primary team at 0600. We were the primary standby gunship team for the base. It was a 24 hour shift, fully dressed, boots and all. We had to standby at the scramble shack next to the helicopters. All four pilots, A/Cs and co-pilots, did a thorough pre-flight of our ships and then went through the checklist flipping only the switches that wouldn't draw power off the battery, but getting everything ready for an immediate start-up. Last thing was to set the chicken plate on the seat. It was an armored chest protector that we wore. In my case I stuck two packs of Winstons in the front pocket it had. Just in case. And then that was it. Back to the scramble hooch to sit and wait.


Two rooms. Bunks in the back in a room kept dark 24 hours a day and the ready room up front. Some guys slept. Some played cards up front. The rules of the scramble hooch were simple. Obviously no booze, keep the noise down for those that wanted to sleep and no gambling lest someone waste time gathering up their winnings when the buzzer went off. I always played cards.


We had been scrambled dozens of times. It was always the same jolt. It was a frenzied ballet, but it was still a ballet. Wing A/C cranked while his co-pilot buckled in. The reverse for lead. Lead's co-pilot cranked while A/C got coordinates and freqs. Door gunners un-tied the blades. Crew chiefs oversaw everything to make sure we were squared away and clear. It took 30 seconds maybe. Igniters clicking, turbines whining to power, the smell of burnt JP-4, adrenaline pumping, scared to death, and loving every minute of it.


The ballet wasn't without its occasional flaws. On one of my first scrambles the buzzer went off and we, well, scrambled. It was a night scramble. I ran outside and my crew chief, who had been sleeping in the ship was holding my “chicken plate” like a matador so I could just run into it, sticking my head through the hole and just slapping the velcro together. The weight of the plate caught me off guard and I went diving head first into the sand. Got up in a second and proceeded as if nothing had happened. No one ever said a word. I don't imagine it was the first time it had ever happened.


But at any rate, that was life at the scramble hooch. We were just sitting there playing the same game, spades, bored as could be, knowing any second the buzzer could go off. We were playing our robotic game of cards. We weren't asleep. I could still sort my hand and follow suit, but really, who cared. Then the buzzer went off!


The whole hooch exploded with action. Boots thumping on the floor in the back room. Cards thrown down. Normally there was one blast on the buzzer. This time there were two. As I was running to the ship I heard the third blast. This was not good!


The mission was unusual, actually radical. Tactics and procedure went out the window from the get go.


Tuy Hoa Tower, Devil 47. Scramble pad for ASAP departure! Vagabond 36! Ah, Roger 47 winds are from the east at niner, ceiling at ah 500, no make that 700 feet.

We were already crossing the active runway. Godamnit Tower! I didn't ask for a godamn weather report. I asked for clearance. We're already across your active! Out!


Mark gave me a quick mid-air briefing. A LRRP team from Charlie Company, 1st of the 75th Rangers, was hiding under a tree with a platoon size patrol of NVA coming right toward their position. They had their backs to a small ridge line and a small river to the front and no place to go. They were whispering in the radio and when that got too risky answered only with clicks of the mike. Two for yes, one for no. This was shaping up to be some bad shit!


Mark was senior in flight time and in country even though I had graduated a month before him. I was the unit IP but he was flying lead and I was flying wing. We made a great team and I actually liked flying wing because it required more radical flying to always be in position to cover him, but we were one hell of a team. We thought as one. The situation was just ten minutes north of us.


45 7 I'm going up and in IFR.


Right behind you 7!


Bull Shit! What do you want, for us all to go up in a fuckin' mid-air? Hang in the valley and circle at my entry point. I'll call back when I see what's shakin'! If I go total IFR I will call Tuy Hoa and do an instrument approach back. Hang tight!


Roger but I don't like it!


Click Click


I circled for what seemed like an eternity. Actually it was probably only two loops.


5 7!


Go!


Alright. Here's the deal. Go north three clicks from my entry point and go straight west. Climb to 1500. You'll go IFR. Level at fifteen for a minute and a half, two tops, it won't be long, and then come down fast. Keep normal air speed and you won't kiss the mountain. As soon as you go visual bank hard left. They should be right in front of you. You'll be right on top of them. They're NVA. Come hot with everything. You're going in alone buddy. I'm going south a ways so I don't spook them. Copy?


Roger!


They won't expect you because o the clouds. They know we don't fly in this shit. The trail is on the east side of the river. You'll see it. The friendlies are east of the trail 50 yards under a big tree. They'll pop smoke as soon as you go hot. Any color counts. Do it on one pass. No cover for you! One chance! Their cover will be blown once they pop smoke! As soon as I see you I'm coming back to cover you and clean up. Copy?


Roger!


Alright. Go for it!


Roger!


I went north what I thought was three klicks, probably only two. Crew chief and door locked and loaded their 60's, Dixie, my co-pilot, lowered the mini-gun sight. He was seasoned, and cool, good at what he did, and probably scared shitless as I was.


Dixie. When I go IFR count time!/q>


Roger!


We headed west towards to ridgeline and into the clouds. I had been under the hood in flight school but had never flown real IFR in my life. This whole day was going to be a first. Suddenly white, all around! I stared at the altimeter and air speed. Fifteen hundred! Oh hell, sixteen can't hurt!


30 seconds!


Roger!


One minute!


Roger! Arm it! Get ready to go hot on my call!


Roger! That's it! That's it. Minute and a half going on two!


I nosed over, probably too much. I just wanted out. Fuck clouds!


River, ground. Yes! Bank hard left. SHIT! THERE THEY WERE! Charlie knew our tactics as well as we did. Helicopters don't fly in clouds, let alone drop out of them and right on top of them with a gunship no less. I turned too much and had to correct. Lined up and let loose with four rockets. I could barely see them when I fired the first four rockets, but they were NVA. Dixie fired a burst of mini. Four rockets. Burst. Four. Burst. Four. Burst. OVER! Someone was screaming, Ass Ass Ass Kick Ass!!! It wasn't my crew. It was one of the Rangers. Mark was coming straight at me.


5 7 Comin' straight at you. I'll pass to the Whiskey.


Roger!


He went speeding by. I did a cyclic climb, pedal turn and fell in on his ass as we went down the river. It felt good to be a team again. Dixie had some mini left. I was out of rockets. Didn't matter. There was nothing left to shoot at. We did a hard 180 and flew back over the target. Some grass was still smoldering. And there were bodies. Just about all of them face down.


Devil 47 Demon 26.


Go ahead 26.


It was the slicks coming in for the extraction.


26 was a captain and good. I was glad it was him.


Roger 26 .Standby one. 5 .7 You clean?


Roger. I'm out. Maybe one burst of mini left.


Roger!


Devil 47 Widow 6. Devils, Demons, Widows. What next! Our call signs I guess were meant to speak of death.


Go ahead Widow 6


Man you be some kinda bad. Tell 45 he has a red star comin' his way. He was referring to a 9 mm pistol with a red star imbedded in the pistol grip. Only officers in the NVA carried them.


Roger


Okay 5. Let's get you out of here Dixie started putting up his mini gun sight.


I can stay.


Nah. It'll be crowded enough when I get the slicks in here.


Roger. I'll fly south a klick, climb to 2 and head east for 5 before starting a slow descent.


Roger.


Try and keep the slicks out of my way since I'll be IFR.


Roger that. See you at the pad.


Roger.


Demon 26 Devil 47.


Go ahead 47.


Roger. November and Echo. We'll get a little lower and watch for him. We'll give you a call when he's out.


Roger. Give him 5 mikes.


Roger.


And off we went into the soup again.


Give me a five count Dixie.


Roger.


We went for about three minutes and I couldn't stand it any more. I didn't like instrument flying. The longer we were in the soup, the greater the chance of getting disoriented.


What do you think Dixie? We gotta be past the ridge by now?


Man, I'd think so.


What do you think guys? I said to the whole crew.


Fuck man. You're the godamn pilot! I'm just along for the ride! asey, my crew chief didn't normally talk like that to me but I didn't care. I was too busy on the instruments and, besides, I was just as scared as he was! Let's go kids!


The hell with the slow descent theory. I dropped fast. If I was going to smack a mountain I was going to do it right. No tumbling flips, I was going to kiss it. Literally! Once I had my descent established I braced my arms on my legs and closed my eyes. My crew didn't know it. My visor was down.


We're out! We're out! Oh, son of a bitch, we're out!


Oh Sweet Baby!


How you doin' Dixie?


Just fine now.


Well then you've got it.I said giving him the controls.


I've got it.He said, sitting up and taking the controls over. I dug for a cigarette and lit it.


Say, Mister ‘G'. About what I said back there, well that was, well you know.


Don't worry Casey. You'll have plenty of time to prepare for your court martial.Someone chuckled with an open mike. Maybe Wilson the door gunner. Then the anvil landed on my head. We could still hear the radio from back in the valley. We were used to hearing several conversations on the radio going on at the same time. I held up my hand for everyone to shut up.


The Rangers had made it down to the target site. They were doing a body count while they were gathering intelligence. They called in 6 confirmed KIA. Man, that was double what the whole company had gotten in the last six months. There was more radio talk and I heard a single shot while the mike was keyed.


Hey 47 .Widow 6 ..make that 13.


Roger.


Devil 47.


Go.


Devil .you guys are some kinda bad. We're going to need more slicks in here.I took the controls from Dixie and started to circle. We got 19 now. Can you get more slicks ASAP. You know how the man is about the body count'.


Roger Demon 26 .Devil 47 ..Can you get more slicks?


Makin' the call right now. You want two or three?


Shit man I don't know .make it three.


47 Widow 6..we're at 25 Shit there's more 29..30 shit 31 man .that's it .I can see that was where the first rounds hit .No blood trails .no tracks you got em' all Get me those slicks so we can get out of here ..I think Charlie's gonna be pissed.


Roger that .45 .you still on freq?


Roger, I said almost in a whisper


You copy?


Roger.


It had been a 31 man patrol. There were 31 KIAs confirmed!! I gave the controls back to Dixie.


Jesus Christ! That's 28 more than the whole company had gotten the year before. I was stunned beyond stunned! Nobody said a word. We just flew.


Tuy Hoa Tower Devil 45 .request a vagabond one eight.


Roger Devil 45 you're cleared for a Vagabond. Is Devil 47 with you?


Negative he's working with the slicks.


Roger. Could you tell him Operations would like to see him when he gets back. I sat up and took the controls.


I got it! I said taking the controls.


You got it.


Tuy Hoa! Maybe you can tell him! He usually comes home this way. How long you been in country? Another voice came on. Deeper and more authoritative. It was the major. You may as well come along too 45.” “I usually do after a hot mission, SIR! When I said Sir he knew that I knew it was him. He never answered the call.


I went to POL and cut back to idle while we refueled, then hovered over to the scramble pad. I set down and shut down. The arms truck pulled up and Casey and Wilson started re-arming. Dixie tied down the blades. I had taken my helmet off and wiped off some sweat. I looked at my watch. The whole thing from start to finish hadn't been more that 40 minutes.


I went around and gave each a double pat on the shoulder for a job well done but there was no joy and nothing was said. Everyone looked sad and tired. I went back and just sat in the cargo door of the ship and watched, waiting for Mark to get back. I lit another cigarette. We weren't supposed to smoke next to the ship but I didn't care.


31 KIA confirmed! Jesus Christ! What had I done! 21 years old. You hand a kid a Huey gunship and send me out there like I'm going onto a football field. I saw a few blurs diving for cover and the rest were hidden by smoke from the rockets and explosions on the ground. 31! My God! What have I done!


I slapped on the old beat up, salt stained, cap I wore. CW2 bars with wings above it. It had actually been blown off my head and went up through the main rotor blades once leaving a distinctive gash. I was ordered several times to get a new hat but I never did. It was like an old friend…and if ever I needed an old friend it was now!


After three more cigarettes Mark came hovering back from POL. He set down and shut down. A Huey came hovering by with the Ranger team. The Rangers were sitting in the cargo door with their feet dangling. They gave a power salute', fist clenched and arm in the arm. They were followed by three Hueys with what appeared to be firewood from a distance, but I knew better. They followed the Rangers to their bivouac area.


Mark's crew started re-arming. All the gun teams shifted status. The secondary gun team went to primary, stand down to secondary. Mark and I went to stand down which was standard procedure after a hot mission. He threw his gear in the back of the jeep and we headed for Operations. Not a word was spoken.


The brass had turned out. A light colonel, the major and our platoon leader, a captain. The major started out trying to show off for the colonel.


Garsch. As unit IP you know better than to go IFR. I didn't answer. He didn't like me because he knew I wore beads and a peace symbol on a chain under my flight suit. He had seen me without my shirt. And he hated my hat. I had taken it off but left my sunglasses on. Well?


Sir. I was flying wing. I was just doing as lead instructed. I thought to myself, Nice try asshole! I wasn't setting Mark up and Mark knew that. It was a matter of limiting the crap. Chew one of us out, but not both.


You two cowboys have just about run your course here .Garsh, in that case we will just de-brief lead! You're dismissed!


I didn't respond. Just turned and left. I sat in the jeep waiting. The clouds actually started to break a little and a few streaks of sun came through. I felt a little of the tension ease, but I sensed intuitively, that what had happened out there in that river valley was something that was going to stick with me.


Twenty minutes and four cigarettes later he appeared. I could tell by the way his hat was cocked on his head and his jaunt that Mark had gotten an ass chewing .and he didn't give a shit! His Irish temper was up but he wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of knowing it.


Now what? I asked.


Oh, I got a five minute chew for taking off before we were cleared. Then I got five more for splitting up the gun team, and then more for going IFR


Assholes! What a bunch of dickheads!


Shit man, don't mean nothin' the Cap was cool he didn't say shit.


At that my thoughts turned back to the 31 KIAs. Don't tell me it don't mean nothing. I had a lifetime of that ahead of me to deal with.


Club?


We drove to the O' Club.


Hey! Bourba wata Scot wata Where you been? Long time, no see. Yeah. That would have been two nights ago. The barmaid returned with two Scotch and waters for Mark and two Bourbon and waters for me. We always ordered two at a time. It saved here travel time.


The word must have already gotten out because people were staring at us. Guys from other units that we didn't even know. We just drank. I kept my sunglasses on. If the eyes were the window to the soul I didn't want anyone looking at my soul at that moment. Maybe not ever!


We ordered ribeyes and fries. Some war! Kill 31 men and boys and get drunk, have a steak and listen to rock & roll. I could tell this was going to effect me over time as it began to sink in.


We got tired of the scrutiny and left to go back to our rooms. We were both senior enough to have our own private rooms. The plan was to shower, shave, put on clean flight suits and return the jeep. Then head to the flight line. I was finished first. I grabbed a half full bottle of Jim Beam and two cokes and went across the hall to Mark's room. He was just finishing up.


We went to the scramble hooch. The pilots were playing spades in the ready room, the crews sleeping in back on the bunks.


Anything shakin'?Mark asked.


Naw, nothing man. Everything's quiet.


They're popin' flares, Mark said referring to those mortar flares they shoot that drift down on little parachutes.


Just some little shit happenin' on the perimeter. You know the usual. He just shrugged and threw down a card. Nothing was said to me or about the day. In hindsight I realize it was the beginning of my isolation. Mark and I went outside and sat on the L-shaped revetment protecting the ship I had flown that day. I didn't normally drink whiskey straight, but I took a draw and followed it with a swig of coke. We weren't supposed to smoke on the flight line let alone drink. We didn't care. I spoke first.


Since I've been here I've only fired into jungle, man. You know, ground pops a smoke. You shoot north or south, east or west, a couple of hundred yards or whatever. Hell, you don't even know if anything is down there! Shit man, .31!


Hey, you better let it lie.


Yeah, but think of the others. The mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins. Everything changed for them in 30 seconds. Hundreds of people!


You better put a lid on that shit man or you're gonna end up with a section eight making baskets in a VA hospital somewhere. It happened. So there is it man.” He took a long draw on his scotch. “Besides, the Rangers probably took out some of them .Dixie got some your door gunners ! Hell, if you want to clear your conscience, just tell yourself they killed them all and you didn't kill any!


Hell. I was the A/C. I flew it. I fired the first shots. Those guys didn't stand a chance.


So I guided you in What do you think they sent you over here for, to play cards all day?


Maybe I was looking for sympathy or a shoulder to cry on. I wasn't getting any help from Mark. He had his own ghosts. And not just Viet Nam. He didn't even have to be in Viet Nam. He had an older brother, also a helicopter pilot, that had been killed in Viet Nam. He was exempt but came anyway. I laid down on my back watching the flares drift down on their little parachutes. They cast an erie light that reflected off the side of my bourbon bottle. How long you got to go man? I asked.


What time you got?


I looked at my watch in the flickering light of the flare.


1:00 A.M.


47 and a wake up.


Hey man, that's your call sign.


Well, I'll be damned. You're right. How about that.


I laid there looking up at the flares drifting down. I felt the cigarette slip from my fingers. Later the bourbon bottle must have fallen from my other hand.


Note: This is an excerpt from a novel by Andre Garesche based on actual events and his personal experience. Andre died from massive internal bleeding on February 28, 2001 before he could finish his story.


AM Def Ser Cam

Last modified: Monday June 27th, 2022