13. Gun Platoon Action In TET - 68 By Walt Chrobak

For what it's worth, this was written from memory 30 years old.

For the 134th Guns, the TET offensive actually began a few days before TET. It was then that I received a complaint from one of the fire team leaders that our fire teams were being jerked around by some Lieutenant up at Pleiku, who showed no respect for aviators in general, and warrant officers in particular. I decided to fly up to Pleiku on the next mission to see for myself what was going on - I did and they were correct, but this time the LT was surprised to be jerking (or attempting to jerk) a captain around. That ended that episode.

Not much else happened that day. We flew up the road to Kontum where the 57th AHC was stationed and stopped to exchange tales. The 57th had also trained at Fort Bragg and I knew many of their people. We returned to Pleiku for the night, intending to go back to Phu Hiep the next day. We stayed with another aviation company but I don't recall the unit. They had coffin shaped company/platoon patches and were the grim reapers or something like that (editor's note: it was probably the Avengers, gun platoon of the 189th AHC). It must have been that night that TET started as we were mortared and rocketed- HARD! So hard that the hooch we were sleeping in was actually blown off the foundation. During the attack we hid in a bunker, and while I was watching the fireworks through a slit-window a shell hit an ammo dump outside. The blast from the explosion came through the slit and threw me back in the bunker, and the back of my head hit a roof beam. Unknown to me the blast also broke the single light bulb hanging from the roof of the bunker, plunging everything into total darkness. Once I had regained some of my senses, I felt blood on the back of my head and I couldn't see. I'm blind was my first muddled thought but then somebody found a light bulb and I was miraculously cured.

The next day when we flew over Kontum, people were standing on rooftops shooting at us. TET was for real.

One of the jerking around problems we had was one-day missions being extended for a couple days. To make sure this didn't happen this time I had instructed our crews not to bring any overnight gear - no toothbrush, no clothing, nothing extra. We were going up for one day and coming back the next morning. As a result about three days into TET we still had nothing - except dirty teeth, dirty clothes, and probably a smell. What could we do? We were also nearly broke! Pooling the little cash we had, Dave Wilkinson (I believe) and I went to the Pleiku Officers Club. There I promptly lost half our cash in slot machines. Dave on the other hand won enough playing poker to see us through this mess. Some supply type was talked out of some new jungle fatigues and we were back in business. (No name tags, no markings - we could do most anything).

When we flew back to Kontum we found the 57th AHC had been heavily hit and had almost nothing flyable. Their headquarters bunker had also been hit and they were in bad shape. We landed to rearm and refuel (there were targets everywhere) and after a short while saw mortars being walked down the runway toward us. The crew had unplugged their helmets and didn't realize what was going on, and only by bouncing the aircraft and pointing did we get their attention, get them on board and escape.

As we took off we immediately spotted what I believe was an NVA infantry battalion attacking the airfield across an open field. For some reason I think we had a heavy fire team at this point (3 gunships), and we literally wiped out this battalion (I think we got a body count of something like 700). What a turkey shoot!! Just like in training! Next, we flew to Dak To to help a firebase under attack with the call sign of Red-Cap or Red Hat.

As an aside we flew so much that we were pushing exhaustion. At one point we landed at the Christmas Tree for refueling. The gunships could not carry a full load of fuel and ordnance, so we would hold our hand out the window, and give a thumbs down when we reached the load of fuel we could carry. During TET we actually fell asleep with our arms out the window, got a full load of fuel, and had to sit on the ground until we burned enough to take off. Also, Pleiku's runway was on a slope and the sliding and bouncing running takeoffs, with the crewchief and gunner running along side till the last minute, were a common occurrence. How the Hell did we survive?

We soon had 4 or 5 Devil gunships in the area. As our ships got shot up we took them to Pleiku for repairs and more came up as replacements from Phu Hiep. When maintenance was done they didn't go back to Phu Hiep–they stayed. During the day we provided support where needed. We responded to someone, call sign Buffalo Bill 6. I know Cappone, Labier, Wigger, Wilkinson, T. Hall and Roger Jones were all there - more but I can't remember. We were directed to a village and told that it was full of VC/NVA. A low and slow reconnaissance showed only women and children, but Buffalo Bill told us to expend on the village, ignoring our report. Instead we mistakenly expended on a nearby tree line - resulting, as I recall, in another 300 confirmed NVA.

During this mission I was giving Labier an AC checkride, and on one gun run he pulled out rather low. Reaching back for a bamboo branch in the cargo compartment I commented that he had pulled out a bit late and asked him if he didn't think it was a tad low. I don't remember his response. Later we lost both tachometers, but Ray kept flying, telling me he could judge the rotor and engine speed by ear - yea, right! He passed the check ride.

We went back to Pleiku again and got mortared again. One of our aircraft had just received new rotor blades, and needed another set before it even flew. During this operation all of our helicopters were damaged but surprisingly no one was seriously wounded. The CE's and gunners seemed to continually get fragments in their shins, but I recall no specifics.

Next day back to Dak To. Sometime during this period we were told that the NVA were flying Aloettes across the border, and we eagerly awaited the chance of an air-to-air kill but we never saw an NVA helicopter - rumor I guess. Somewhere during this time Cappone attacked a .50 caliber (equivalent) position and had his left pylon shot off, losing a rocket pod and minigun. He survived, the .50 didn't.

Flying low around the RedCap firebase, my wingman (Wigger) noticed explosions on the ground trailing my aircraft. The NVA were trying to shoot us down with mortars. By now it must have been getting dark because a round went through my left navigation light shorting out the lights and blowing circuit breakers. The round(s) exited through the greenhouse over my head - never have figured this out.

We called Dak To and were told that they were under mortar and recoilless rifle fire. We asked them to fire a flare so we could find the airstrip and land. We landed, refueled and rearmed, and thought that was it for the night, but we were sent back out. RedCap was under heavy assault and had to be evacuated. Thus started some of the hairiest, scariest flying I have even seen. It was dark, we really didn't know where the mountains were, the bad guys were shooting, the slicks were flying without nav lights, we turned ours on as the lesser of evils. Panic had set in on the ground and we could hear it on the radio. I don't know who flew the slicks into the firebase, but this was the most heroic flying I witnessed in two years over Vietnam. I actually heard the crews threaten to shoot grunts because the helicopters were overloaded and couldn't takeoff with the load onboard. It was Panic! Fire was intense. We supported the evacuations, firing at muzzle flashes outside what we perceived as a perimeter. If we could see a flare we assumed there was no mountain between us and the light. I think we refueled and rearmed once. Finally everybody was out - it was over. We returned to Dak To for the night. We were exhausted and didn't have light to inspect the aircraft. We were literally shaking - I mean like uncontrollably shivering.

The grunts at Dak To gave us a case of beer. We found a large tent with cots and attempted to sleep, but it was too cold. Labier went out and shortly thereafter came back with some blankets, somewhat wet, but nonetheless warm. Shortly after we all went to sleep a recoilless rifle round hit the unoccupied tent next to ours - Trainee Hall slept though it. We were not in good shape. When daylight came I noticed that the wetness on the blankets appeared to be blood and other things. I asked Labier where he'd found the blankets and he told me he had taken them off corpses in the makeshift morgue. I'll never forget his answer. We needed the blankets more than they did he replied.

Sometime during this period we were called to Kontum to support a ground operation, house to house fighting in the city itself. I recall flying down the main street, between buildings, to unload on a pink catholic church at the end of the block. No other details.

After Dak To we went back to Pleiku for rest and repairs, but TET still wasn't over. The 57th had been supporting the Kontum SOG (Special Operations Group), dropping long range patrols into Laos. We were volunteered to replace them on this mission. I don't remember much of this other than we were to fly to Attapou, Laos for refueling, tell State Department people there that we had made a navigational error, and that we were lost. We were told to get away from the aircraft if we went down because it would be destroyed by napalm. Don't expect to be rescued, they said. This episode is so vague. I'm not sure it really happened, but I seem to recall filling out a log book to Laos because we didn't volunteer, and that log disappearing. Maybe somebody else remembers. Maybe my memory is completely wrong. It's been over 30 years.

Finally we were released from what started out as a one-day mission, and we flew down to Lane AAF?? where my navigation story in the text begins.

On arriving at Phu Hiep we were sent out to protect Tuy Hoa AFB. Slightly to the west of Tuy Hoa an NVA/VC unit was trapped on a small peninsula. We expended on the target, were relieved by AF fighters who expended, then rearmed we expended again, and so on through the day. Finally nothing was left on the ground. During this, the infantry battalion commander on the ground was arguing on the radio with the 268th Aviation Battalion Commander, and the words if you don't like the support we're providing, I'll take my helicopters and go home were heard. A moment later the aviation battalion commander was wounded and he went home. The rest of us stayed.

On a bare dirt road north of the peninsula I saw what appeared to be a family of four - man, wife, two small children - all lying next to each other, very neat--but dead. Casualties of war! I think, or like to think, the AF fighters killed them because we were low and slow enough to distinguish targets. This still remains with me - I don't know why.

To end my TET story it should be noted that before moving to Tuy Hoa subarea command we always kept a light fire team on alert at Phu Hiep. Here's why they moved.

The aircraft were kept in revetments, preflighted, and ready to go. One night we were mortared and scrambled the waiting gunships. After takeoff we were directed to a small cemetery outside the perimeter, where we expended. The next day a mortar baseplate was found there. A quad 50 inside the perimeter attempted to help by shooting under our flight path, but unfortunately his aim was high. Here I found out that you could get your entire body behind one small chicken plate. This flight I flew with Wigger, Allen flew wing. McGowan and Toler were C&C.

Sometime during the flight Allen reported that his windshield had been shot out and my ship developed a fairly severe vibration and the chip detector light came on. We asked for an emergency landing on the battalion pad. Apparently the mortar attack had hit the top of the revetments damaging both aircraft before takeoff. They were full of holes. My aircraft had 42 holes in one tail rotor blade alone – Someone gave me the tail rotor but I left it in Vietnam. The next morning we were chewed out for parking overnight on the Battalion pad and consequently allowing our aircraft to be damaged.

As a final thought, I would like to express my appreciation to the Army Warrant Officer aviators who were the real heart of the helicopter war in Vietnam. Though wily and cunning they were also some of the bravest, most resourceful, and professional men I have ever served with or met. Outside appearances can be deceiving, and no matter how much they denied it they truly cared about the job and especially their comrades.

The same goes for the crewchiefs and doorgunners without whom we wouldn't have survived. They were magnificent. Finally but not least the maintenance crews - the 618th - their's was an unappreciated job. Nothing would have been possible without their long hours of hard work. I hope they read this. Thank you!!!
AM Def Ser Cam
Last modified: Tuesday March 14th, 2023