23. A Dumb Thing to Do by Stan Gause

I guess I did my share of dumb things but one that stands out most in my mind is an incident that occurred in late summer of 1968. I was fire team leader of a Devil fire team based out of An Khe. We were the only gun team between An Son and Pleiku. In addition to supporting a battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade operating around An Khe we also had the job of protecting Highway 19, a job we enjoyed very much since we had the freedom to do pretty much anything we wanted.

We had a free fire area for roughly 10 klicks (km) north and south of Highway 19 all the way from An Khe Pass in the east through Mang Yang Pass in the west, a distance of probably 30-40 miles or more. This was a very desolate area of flat terrain and low rolling hills with maybe 30-40% open area, sparse vegetation in some places and dense jungle in others. There were no villages and any people found in the area were assumed to be enemy. Perfect gunship country!! In addition to convoy escort for the first convoy of the day we usually made a recon of our area of operations at first light and often just before dusk. There were also recons during the day and we worked closely with army FACs (bird dogs) to provide fire support on any targets they found. For a gunship pilot this was a great deal of flying and we loved. We had carte blanc approval to shoot anything that moved.

During our recon missions we normally flew with the lead ship very low (25-50 feet AGL) with weapons systems armed and fingers on the trigger. Often as we came over small hills or ridgelines we could get a fleeting glimpse of people (NVA/VC) scrambling for cover and we only had a split second to aim and pull the trigger before the target disappeared. Our CE's and gunners were incredible. They had eyes like an eagle and reflexes like a cat. Often before I could even focus on a target they had already nailed it. They were AWFULLY good!! They could spot targets where the pilots saw nothing at all. CE's and gunners like this were worth their weight in gold and we had the best. My experience on these daily recon missions convinced me there was no way the new Cobra gunships could provide close ground support like a C model Huey with a good crew. I was convinced (and still am) that the 134th had the best gunship crews in Vietnam, probably the best there ever was.

During one period of a few days we caught maybe 6-8 people, including one woman, in the open on our recon missions and the CE, gunner or copilot (with the minigun) cut them down before you could even think about whether we should have held our fire. I had some doubts about whether some of these were in fact NVA or VC and felt a little bad about it. The AO was a long-standing free fire area and our rules of engagement allowed us to shoot anything on sight. No friendlies were supposed to be in the area. However, some of the enemy we encountered appeared to be farmers and I wondered if maybe they were innocent people who had somehow blundered into a free fire area.

One day we were on a routine patrol of the AO when we topped a small hill and spotted a man running across a clearing. He saw us at about the same time and stopped running. I immediately told my crew and wingman to hold their fire, thinking the man might be just an innocent farmer (although he certainly was way out in the boonies).

The man stopped then continued walking rapidly away from us toward a tree line a short distance away. We flew over him and circled back for a closer look. I slowed to maybe 20 knots and dropped down to 15-20 feet. Almost hovering I slowly approached. He continued walking rapidly away and looking at us over his shoulder. I approached to within 40-50 feet and considered the possibility of trying to take him prisoner. At this point he suddenly stopped, reached down behind a bush, pulled out an AK-47 and sprayed a line of bullet holes across our windshield. The 6-8 holes were about eye level but luckily they came in at a sharp angle, missing everyone and going out the roof.

We were momentarily stunned and too close to bring our guns to bear. The door gunner probably could have taken a shot but he was so stunned he didn't get one off. I pulled pitch and banked away to come around for a shot at him. The man made a dash for the tree line maybe 20-30 feet away. Just as he disappeared into the trees my wingman hit his position with a burst of minigun fire and we followed up with a few rockets. However, the vegetation was pretty dense and I don't know if we got him or not.

It all happened so fast we didn't have time to be scared but after it was over and we had time to think about, it was terrifying –and very STUPID!

After this episode I didn't hesitate to shoot first and ask questions later, especially in free fire areas.
AM Def Ser Cam
Last modified: Friday March 17th, 2023