The Battle of Kontum Banner Image

Pham Minh Xuan  



North Vietnam aimed to gain control of more territory to improve the North's negotiating position as the Paris Peace Accords drew toward a conclusion. April 4th, 1972 The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) started their Easter Offensive in the Central Highlands of RVN's Military Region II.

Ten days before, on March 25th, 1972, ARVN's 11th Airborne battalion was airlifted into the AO to build up Charlie FSB, (Fire Support Base / Hill 1062) part of the Airborne's defending ring established to protect the left side of the National Route 14 (QL-14) directly connecting the Kontum province.

At 0600 on April 5th, 1972 approximately 35 NM south of Charlie FSB, I walked with Duty-Officer of the day to 530 FS (standby for second flight of the morning: Jupiter 21). With a hoagie in hand I sat down on top of an empty desk ready for my rushed breakfast, and before the heat from my body had enough time to warm the surface of the desk the hotline phone rang. To help the Duty-Officer, I picked up the phone and answered…

- 530 FS (Fighter Squadron), who is this? -

- Lt. NHAM TOCC (Tactical Operation Control Center) -

- Go ahead TOCC -

- Hot scramble Jupiter "One-One.” Charlie FSB is under overrun attack. Details will be given after air-born through Uniform 241.0 and Victor 120.5. -

After notifying the Duty-Officer, I put my hoagie back in my zip pocket and reached for the second phone line to rush Jupiter "One-One" crew. Before I could make the call Major THANH ‘Ngo’ (nickname meaning ‘nerd’), my Jupiter “Two-One” leader showed up in the doorway. I hung up the phone and talked to him directly, “TOCC just hot scrambled Jupiter One-One and the crew is not here yet, do you want to take their slot?” Without hesitation, Major THANH 'Ngo' responded, “Let’s go.” I notified the Duty-Officer, “We’re switching for Jupiter "One-One", call to rush them and let them know Charlie FSB is in hot” and sarcastically he replied, “Yes sir!”.

Major THANH and I started mission briefing while picking up our flight gear and then rushed toward the AC. He reminded me to use English for all radio communications to keep VC from eavesdropping on our radio frequencies. He picked up an A1-E (#215) with 6 MK-82s which left me with an A1-H (#370) with 6 napalms. We had runway 09 and were air-born within 10 minutes after firing the engines.

After joining up at 8,000 feet on 360 heading, he signaled me go to Uniform and kicked me out to combat formation. He started calling TOCC…

-TOCC this is Jupiter "One-One" -

-Go ahead Jupiter "One-One" -

-Jupiter "One-One" ready for your detailed instruction -

-Jupiter "One-One" proceed to Zulu-Bravo-005115.

Contact Black-Cat 555 on 120.5 Victor and 47.0 FM -

-Roger "One-One" -

We crossed over Chu-Pao pass at 8,000 feet and suddenly we heard a female voice being broadcast through VHF radio. The message was in Northern Vietnamese dialect spreading propaganda on our VHF frequency.

Voice :-Thai-Duong! (meaning ‘Jupiter’ in Vietnamese) You are all "air pirates"; you are following the order of your master "American-Capitalism" to kill your innocent fellow Vietnamese. If you do not immediately stop, we in the name of The People’s Army, will shoot you down and punish you as a war criminals. You have to pay this bloody debt with the people of Vietnam. - (Repeatedly).

This is not the first time I had experienced this kind of propaganda so I wanted to ridicule her by shouting back and challenging her. I yelled in Vietnamese…
-OK ! OK ! If you said we are following the order of our master, “American-Capitalism", I challenge you now to show me how much freedom you have with your Soviet Communist comrade versus how much freedom we have with our master "American-Capitalism". Let me start, I will scold loud and clear "F... Richard Nixon" and you will do the same, say "F... Leonid Brezhnev comrade" now!
There was no response. I continued…

-You see? “American-Capitalism” is not our master. We have more freedom than you. You are the loser pin-head! -

I really let her have it for a while on this VHF, but not for long. She started all over again with the same rhetoric. My #1 jumped in on uniform…

-Good job #2, good job! Back to business, avoid using Victor, in case ofemergency use guard frequency -

-Roger #2 -

When we were over Kontum my #1 started to contact the FAC, Black-Cat 555…

-Black-Cat "Triple Nickle" / Jupiter "One-One" is calling.-Go ahead "One-One" -

-"One-One" at 8000 feet over Kontum. Two A-1’s with 6 MK-82s, 6 napalms and 1600 rounds of 20mm canon. 2 hours play time.

#1 request to roll-in hot first to empty all MK-82s in 3 random passes before my "#2". He will come in with 6 napalms after -.

-Hear you loud and clear Jupiter "One-One". I have you in sight. I am at your 1 o'clock low, 5,000 feet and approximately 5 miles away from you. Monitor FM 47.0 for red-beret guys on the ground. Now, do you see the green triangle located half mile on the west of Charlie's command post antenna? -
-Roger, I have it in sight. Where are my first 2 bombs to hit? -

-Put all 6 of your bombs at the three corners, inside of the triangle. We saw VC rockets coming out from that thick green triangle this morning. Break to east or north-east of Charlie hill in case of emergency.

Dak-To airstrip located about six kilometers to the north is open for you anytime. -

-Roger "One-One". Jupiter "One-Two", climb to 10,000' and wait for me there until I finish my job -

Two" -.

Things went well at first. During a random roll-in hot of #1 at 10,000', I observed only sporadic small fire; no serious threat as far as AAA is concerned. After #1 pulled out from his last pass and climbed to 10,000 feet, the FAC Black-Cat 555 started to direct me to new napalm targets…

-Jupiter "One-Two", spread your napalms over the west hillside of Charlie hill. 500' west of the paratroop's command post is good enough –

As soon as Black Cat finished his transmission I heard the urgent voice of a ground paratrooper on FM radio…

-They're overrunning! They're overrunning! In human waves, they're over running the south hillside of Charlie now! Between Charlie and Delta slopes -

Black-Cat immediately jumped in and redirected…

-Jupiter "One-Two", this is "Triple Nickels". Did you hear that? Did you hear that on FM? Correction! Correction! Roll in hot from west to east, break north and spread your napalms between Charlie and Delta slopes on the south hillside of the Charlie. Repeat, the south hillside of Charlie, opposite of Delta slope. Acknowledge me! -

-"One-Two" understood. "One-Two" is turning west now and west-east roll in hot, approximately one minute. –

Heavy artillery preparation fire lasted for 2 hours that morning. Afterwards the NVA's troops of the 64th Steel Fist regiment of the elite division 320 began to assault Fire Base Charlie in human waves from the south.

Simultaneously the NVA's artillery fired harassing fire on all ARVN's artillery positions to prevent counter-fire or fire support for Charlie.

Pushing the throttle up, I swooped down to tree top level heading east. It was not difficult to navigate through this kind of landscape because the shallow "V" shape of the valley was ahead of me at my 12 o'clock. Bringing the selection switch to pair, I was low in the valley between Charlie hill (on my left) and Delta hill (on my right). I had to pay close attention to my surroundings because of the tall trees covering the two slopes.

My first napalm run was not perfect but the enemy’s assault was forced to stop and restart. I could hear a paratrooper cheering on the radio…

-Good job Jupiter! Good job! Keep barbequing them!” -

The second pass was even better because I was more aware of the sloping terrain. I even had a little bit more time to look around and see the high trees not far from the barbed wire fences around the Fire Base. On the radio the paratrooper told me that the napalm bombs exploded into giant fireballs precisely on the approaching wave of NVA troops. The North Vietnamese soldiers were in flames next to their defensive trenches and most of them were retreating. The paratrooper cheered and congratulated me again…

-You SOB’s! Born-north-die-south! Hahaha! Great job Jupiter! Great job!
I felt great; the enemy’s overrun assault was broken once again.

But on the third and last pass I made a terrible mistake, because I did not change my flight pattern the AAA was waiting for me. But by the time I realized, it was too late. I heard a couple of 'thud' sounds and the engine started 'coughing' before I even reached the valley. AAA on the hillside west of Charlie must have gotten me this time because my left side was wide open at tree top level. I quickly pulled the manual release cable to get rid of the last two napalms then pulled straight up to gain as much altitude as possible. Still heading eastbound toward the 22nd Division's HQ of RVN at Dien-Binh, I tried to turn slightly towards the north to face the Dak-To airstrip in case I had to crash. My altitude indicator sluggishly maxed out to 5,000' at 2,000' ASL area.

I quickly glanced at my carburetor temperature gauge and the reading was far beyond 350 degrees. Engine roughness was getting worse so I inched the power back. The carburetor cooled off a little and the engine sounded better, but at this throttle setting the aircraft could not maintain its altitude. I slowly descended at 800 feet per minute at 110-120 knots airspeed and the smell of hydraulic fluid and smoke began to migrate into the cockpit. Trying to stay calm and control the volume of my voice, I called major THANH, my leader…

-"Number One" this is "Number Two". "Number Two" has been hit. I am losing altitude now-

During the call, I quickly looked toward Dak-To airstrip. I felt that I would be able to make it there, but unfortunately two helicopters were sitting on the landing strip with their engines on. I called my "Number One" again…

-"Number One", I will crash at Dak-To. Get there and kick those copters off of the runway for me please! Quick! -

-OK! OK! Will do. -

I was told later that to get the helicopter pilots’ attention he flew parallel with the airstrip rocking his wings violently. But his message was not understood on his first attempt so he had to turn around. On his second attempt he flew low and slow with his landing gears and flaps down, he opened his canopy and signaled by hand with an 'outward thumb whack' gesture to tell the Hueys to move. Thanks to his quick and creative thinking he successfully cleared the landing strip for me.

I reached Dak-To slightly high at base key altitude and when I tried to lower my gears and flaps I realized that none of them worked. Another quick glance at the hydraulic gauge confirmed it, there was zero pressure. I knew that I didn’t have enough time to use the hand pump and I had no choice but to crash with gears up. The smoke started to thicken in the cockpit and it was hard to breath. I didn’t have much time to think so I yanked the canopy back with both hands, with the cockpit wide open all the smoke was sucked out instantly and I was able to see and breathe easier. I began to slip, crabbing the aircraft down toward the touchdown point.

But, I was a little too high and knowing that every foot would count in this "one shot" crash, I pushed the nose lower to avoid stalling before lowering the left wing and kicking in more right rudder. My airspeed dropped and maintained at 85-90 knots. My left shoulder was against the wind and the whole dump-truck dropped like a rock towards the earth.

This was it, the moment of truth. Approaching the touchdown point, I quickly I straightened the nose and flared up simultaneously. The aircraft sunk fast and I could feel the negative G’s in my belly. The impact was strong and rough and covered the aircraft in red dust. I vividly remember using both feet to brace myself against the control panel and suddenly the whole aircraft shook and stopped. I unbuckled and jumped out of the cockpit as fast as I could and noticed that I had ended up on the grass field next to the airstrip. I took a moment to look back and as the dust settled I saw that my bird had stopped no more than 10 feet from the end of the landing strip. Directly ahead of the nose there was piled up concertina wire hung with beer cans and skull and crossbones signs that read, "Landmines, Do Not Cross."
As I stood there with my knees trembling uncontrollably, two OV-2 liaison pilots from Black-Cat squadron popped out from their bunker with a bottle of made-in-Korea whisky to congratulate me. Without thinking I finished 1/3 of the bottle while waiting for a helicopter from the Pleiku 72nd Tactical-Wing to come pick me up at 1300 on that fateful afternoon of April 5th, 1972.

I collected a total of 6 sharp leads from a 12.7mm DShK anti-aircraft machine gun. Two of the leads were lodged-in my #2 and #7 cylinders. One went through the hydraulic pump and 3 more went through my rudder and rear fuselage section tattering the lovely skin of my 370.

XUAN’s Crashed SKYRAIDER in DAK-TO Crash Assessment by Maj. THANH (Safety Officer)


Pleiku AFB May 31 1973, on my way to 530 FS in the early morning, I had just enough time to buy a small pouch of traditional Vietnamese sticky-rice with Chinese sausage for breakfast. My wingman was 2nd. Lt. H.N. he did not have time to do anything except grab his revolver and leave the BOQ in order to catch up with me.
Today is my forth mission after being checked out as an Element-Leader three days prior. The mission was to support the RVN Ranger base in Ben Het. The target was VC's 120mm rocket launch site at YB300150 between Ben Het & Dak Seang, about 50 NM west north-west of Pleiku. Ben Het base had been under rocket and mortar attack throughout the night.

Our call sign was Jupiter "One-One” and we had two A1-H's with 6 MK-82's on each wing. TOCC hot scrambled us at 05:30 for 0615 air born. We lifted off at 0610 heading north and climbed to 10,000 feet to ready ourselves for the 4,127 foot ASL target.

It was a typically beautiful highlands morning and all the fog and water vapor formed a breathtaking landscape above the natural spring lakes and the Ya-Krong-Bolah and Poko rivers. It resembled a giant white snake wrapped around the Truong-Son Mountains. It was intensely serene, so serene that it seemed impossible there was a horrible war going on down there.
As the flight was joining up in wing-tip formation, I called out to my “Number Two” …
-"One-Two" / "One-One" is calling-

-Go ahead "One-One" -

-Did you have anything for breakfast yet? -

-Negative. No time this morning. -

-Do you want to have some? -

Simultaneously I pulled out the sticky-rice pouch that I set on top of the control-panel. I opened it, picked out a small piece, and in slow motion put it into my mouth.

-Sh.... -

I saw him break away from close formation and go to combat formation and I laughed through the radio.

Ten minutes later we were on AO and I was totally surprised by the weather about 10 miles away from the target. A thick sheet of dense clouds covered the entire target at 2,000 feet AGL but it was a bluebird sky above 2,500 feet AGL. The cloud cover was completely still showing no significant movement at all, but we could not hang around and wait for this cloud to disappear. So I decided to 'bunt' bomb at 2,000 feet below the cloud ceiling. Because of the cloud situation, I requested to salvo under the ceiling then pull up above cloud for BDA. Jupiters would return for strafing if necessary.

FAC Black-Cat agreed and marked the target with a white smoke rocket. I came in first from north to south and as soon as I went below the cloud plane I could see the target, it literally looked like Hell. Because of the red soil in this area and the redness of the sun in early morning reflecting off of the low clouds, the whole area glowed bright red like a valley of death.

I saw the ground fire clearly in contrast with the reddish environment; the tracers came towards me like snowflakes flying at a windshield through the night. Miraculously, I was safe after spreading the 3 pairs of bombs on the target. When I pulled up and reached the top of the cloud layer I heard my "Number Two" rolling in hot from north-west to south-east. He emptied his wings, pulled up, and begged me for permission to return and strafe the AAA positions he claims he spotted earlier. I gave him permission but turned around with him just in case something bad happened.

After he finished, he pulled up and got excited because he thought he destroyed the AAA’s. We joined up and headed south back to Pleiku at 9,000 feet before the FAC finished his BDA. Following procedure, I asked my "Number Two" to go around me and check my aircraft for any damage. He did it and then took the lead and it was my turn to go around him. I got under him and slowly slid myself from left to right for inspection. When I was in the perfect position under his belly I looked up and saw his four 20mm canon chambers still fully closed. Without thinking I pushed the mike button and reminded him immediately:

-"Number Two” Are you sure all of your switches are OFF and SAFE? -

Before I had time to duck I saw four 20mm canon shells tumble and fly by my cockpit at the "speed of sound." My hair caught fire!!!

I was pale and blurted out in my best English, "Oh sh..!" before pulling up to his right and resuming the lead on our way home. During our trip back to Pleiku, it was not easy to restrain myself from scolding him over the radio. After we landed at Pleiku, nothing was left on his butt afterward.

From this learning experience I requested that our safety officer share the lesson properly through VNAF safety briefings and name the incident as "Friendly Fire".

Pham Minh Xuan < >
Tuesday, July 11, 2017 at 14:57:23 (EDT)

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