7. DEVIL GUNS AT SONG CAU -- FEB 1971 By David Ayers
The morning of February 12th, 1970 started out as a routine gunship mission: "SIT AND WAIT FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN". We had a light fire team (two gunships) on standby at first light to support ARVN troops in the field. We were standing by on the airstrip at Cung Son. Lead aircraft was CWO Gino Mediate and CP - CWO Jack Rainwater. Wing aircraft was myself and CP - LT Cannon Ramey. (I apologize to all the enlisted crewmembers but I just can't remember who was crewing that day). As I recall, both aircraft were equipped in the slaughter mode. That was miniguns and small rocket pods. We were the standby team for that day and had received late notification of the mission. The mission team was long gone on their previously assigned mission. Our mission was a last minute affair as per SOP for the Devils.
Sometime around mid-morning (probably around 0930 – 1000 hrs) we were alerted by a US Special Forces advisor that hot action was going on in the vicinity of Song Cau (a small fishing village on the coast just south of Qui Nhon). We were then notified by 134th Operations that we were released from stand-by and cleared to take an emergency mission to Song Cau. The US advisor asked if he could come along for the ride. Taking non-wounded PAX on an operational mission in gunships was at that time strictly prohibited so we quite naturally told the Major to jump aboard and enjoy the flight. As we were fully armed and had plenty of fuel, we took off and proceeded low level on a direct line to Song Cau. This took us over The Hub which, as most of you probably remember, was a pretty bad area. That was the primary reason for the low level flight. This and the fact that all Devils seemed to suffer severe nose bleed when flying higher than about 200 feet AGL (which was a pretty dumb altitude to fly when going anywhere in SE Asia).
Upon arrival at Song Cau, we were directed to the smaller fishing village of Vihn Cou Phu, a short distance NE of Song Cau. At that time, one of the 134th Demons was acting as C & C for the action. Apparently the same Demon had been on a milk run when he spotted a large group (200-300 troops) of what appeared to be VC or NVA in the open on a sand bar peninsula that led to the fishing village. He flew down to check out these troops and was immediately fired upon. This, he assumed, meant that the guys on the ground were not allies (although I was most certainly shot at by VC, NVA, ROK, ARVN, civilians and everybody else except Aussies at one time or another during my 2 tours). The slick called Demon Operations and reported what had occurred. He also maintained an orbit above the peninsula and kept the bad guys corralled with his M-60’s until gunships arrived. In addition, other Demons were bringing in ARVN troops to set-up a blocking force on the land side of the peninsula.
By the time our fire team arrived on station, the enemy troops had scattered into small groups of 5-10 men, with some attempting to gain the relative safety afforded by the civilians in the village. The on-station Demon aircraft had done an exemplary job of keeping them contained in the open and preventing their takeover of the village. The job of the Devils was to destroy the troops remaining on the peninsula, prevent them from approaching the fishing village, and eliminate those who tried to swim to safety. Due to the limited area we had to operate in and the numerous small groups encountered, it was virtually impossible to set up any type of normal gun run. For much of the time, the lead aircraft and myself were pretty much separated and doing our own thing while still trying to provide some support for each other.
I estimate we expended on ammo and needed refueling after about 35-45 minutes of the slaughter and chaos. On my last pass, my CE was wounded in the upper inside of his left (?) thigh. It later turned out to be a minor wound that was caused by a bullet striking the rotating mini-gun on his side and being deflected into his leg. I immediately broke off my attack and informed lead that I had a wounded crew member and needed to evacuate to the nearest medical facility. He was completely expended at this time and we proceeded to the Evac Hospital at Qui Nhon. After landing at the Medivac Pad I got my CE into the hospital immediately. He was in extreme discomfort even though the bleeding had almost stopped. I spent about 20 minutes with him in admitting and writing up the circumstances so he could receive his well-earned Purple Heart. I finished the paper work about the same time that I was informed that although his wound was quite painful, it was fairly minor, and he would have the bullet removed and stay overnight at the hospital for observation.
By the time I got back out to the pad, LT Ramey had found a fuel truck and refuelled our ship. However, Gino's aircraft had taken numerous hits, several through the bottom of his aircraft and several more around the engine compartment. One of the bullets had caused some damage to his (help me, cause I am not a mechanic) fuel control valve(?). He was therefore unable to continue without maintenance support. We decided that I should contact 129th AHC at Lane AAF to see if I could borrow one of their aircraft and crew to make up a full fire team and go back to Song Cau. At this point, CWO Rainwater pulled rank on Gino's crew and volunteered to come with me as my door gunner. Since this was already turning into a screwed-up day, I told him to grab his chicken plate and Bible and come along. This caused the SF Major to ask if I could take him back to the ARVN compound. I asked why he didn't want to go back out with us and he showed me the holes in the bottom of Gino's ship (which appeared between his legs during the initial gun run). I questioned him no further.
Enroute to the Song Cau ARVN compound, I was able to confirm the loan of one of the 129th B models, with crew as long as I didn't break either. After dropping off the Major, I flew to Lane to refuel, rearm and pick-up the rest of my mixed fire team. As it turned out, the PIC of the 129th ship (CWO Phil Hollar) was about as inexperienced as one can get and still fly right seat. It was therefore decided that I should fly lead. This was my first experience at lead without one of the older guys being along to hold my hand. My only consolation was the knowledge that if I was going to die that day, it would probably be caused by some screw-up by my best friend, my CP-1LT Cannon Ramey.
By the time all this had occurred it was probably around 1400 hrs, and the remaining bad guys had worked their way into the village proper, taking many villagers as hostages. There was also a USAF FAC controlling things by that time. Apparently someone had thought we might need “Fast Movers” out of Phu Cat, and the AF had taken over control. This didn't bother me a bit, since I had worked with AF FAC's many times and found them to be extremely competent and knowledgeable of Army helicopter tactics.
I still had the only fire power on station. The ARVN's still held their blocking position and were apparently waiting for hostilities to cease before moving in. We initially cleaned-up the NVA left on the peninsula, and then began orbiting and playing cat and mouse with the many enemy troops that had taken refuge in the village. It was pretty much a stand-off until the enemy decided to release the villagers en-masse. This was an indication to us that they intended to stand and fight----to the last man if required. Upon release of the hostages, the enemy began shooting the villagers in the back with automatic weapons as they ran toward the beach. At this point I felt that I had no choice but to roll in hot on the hooches (all of which contained enemy troops). When we began firing on a run over the path of the fleeing civilians, they apparently thought we were firing at them and ran back toward the hooches they just left. Unfortunately, this led to the civilians (old men/women, children, babies and their mothers) being caught in a deadly crossfire. They ran directly into our field of fire. It scared the hell out of me but I had no choice but to continue firing at the NVA holed up in the hootches. I am very sorry to say that we (my fire team) most likely caused as many civilian casualties as the enemy killed that day. My estimate is that between 20 and 25 civilians were killed or severely wounded.
We were soon expended on ammo and low on fuel. We then returned to Lane AAF to rearm and refuel and let 129th Operations know that we would most likely conclude the mission after the next ammo/fuel load. Their Operations informed me that they would much prefer me to return home with a full fire team. They therefore sent CWO Hollar (he later became an AC with the Demons) and his crew to RON at Tuy Hoa with me.
After this rearm/refuel stop, we once again returned to the mission at hand. The rest of the afternoon was spent clearing isolated pockets of resistance from the wooded hillside and a few of the hardcore wounded from the village.
As we expended the last of our ordinance the ARVN troops decided to proceed with a sweep of the village By this time, virtually all the enemy fire had ceased. As our nostrils later told us, they didn't clear the dead from the wooded hill for at least two weeks. After one more rearm/refuel and Hollar's chance for his crew to pick-up essentials (like money for the club, etc.) we headed toward home. On our way, we overflew the battlefield and I instructed all pilots to estimate the number of enemy KIA based on what we could see from the air. We arrived back at Tuy Hoa around last light. If memory serves me correctly, we were greeted by Operations giving me a bunch of crap about their not knowing where we had been all day. I think Mediate and his crew arrived back home about four hours ahead of us and my CE was able to catch a ride home next day on the Demon milk run.
Note #1 The troops we faced had a combination of the usual black pj's and full khaki uniforms to include pith helmets and/or boonie hats. Being an infantry officer who spent a total of 25+ years in the military, I'm fairly certain we where up against a heavily reinforced infantry company and possibly a light battalion from the Peoples Army of Vietnam. I also spent nearly 4 years in Military Intelligence (I know, there ain't no such thing!) and my specialty required me to know something about the North Vietnamese and the TO&E make-up of their military units.
Note #2 The narratives for our Crosses of Gallantry w/Star mention a certain number of VC KIA and state that we were fighting a VC unit and, erroneously, that the ARVN ground troops made most of the kills. I submitted all US gunship crews, except myself and LT Ramey, for Bronze Stars w/V. Nothing was ever heard of these awards. However, I was recently informed by Jack Rainwater that he did receive his Bronze Star w/V in the mail about 6 months after he left the Army. I was glad to hear that since this incident was the last action that Jack saw during his tour. Jack also told me that during his one + year as a Gun Driver this was his only encounter with numerous troops in the open.
This narrative really does not cover all of the events. They are just the ones that I am able to remember and/or those I can talk about. I apologize if it is not as complete as it should be. That day lives with me constantly and has for the last 29 years. War by itself is hard enough but when innocent people are caught up in the carnage it weighs heavily on you, even though you may have had no choice in responding as you did. After all that time one would think that I could remember and/or forget everything. It just doesn't work that way.
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