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Calvin Bohannon  

Action on November 10th – 14th, 1966 - The Shoot out on the Cambodian Border, In Support of “Operation Prong”

The Mission of the 119th Assault Helicopter Company, 52 Aviation Battalion in Pleiku at Camp Holloway, was to provide tactical air movement for combat troops and combat supplies and equipment within the active combat zone.

I will attempt to describe my involvement with the 119th AHC and other aviation elements in a deadly battle that climaxed on the 11th of November. Unknowing to us the demand on the men of the 119th would be stretched to the limit and we would suffer a great loss before the end of this mission.

The first 10 days after arriving at the 119th I worked in maintenance at the hanger but volunteered to fly as soon as an aircraft became available and needed a CE (crew chief engineer). On November 7th my flight crew assignment was to serve as the CE on Gator 6’s (the company commanders call sign was Gator 6) D model Huey while its normal CE was on two week R&R. I was told by John Tompkins I would be using the normal CE’s M60 machine gun in the left side door position. Using the regular CE’s M60 was a mistake I wish I hadn’t agreed to it. I had only been in country for 20 days and being part of the Gator 6 crew now for only 3 out of 14 day crew change while my assigned Huey was in maintenance.

Three days after my assignment to Gator 6, on the 10th, we were involved in planning a move of three companies of the 1st of the 12th Battalion, 25th Infantry Div into an area west of Plei Djereng and North of Duc Co. They were to relieve and/or support a CIDG company that had made heavy contact with an unknown number of NVA very close to the Cambodian border. The infantry companies were originally being moved further north, and we and our slicks and guns as a company were to move them. but the contact by the CIDG force changed that and one of our slicks came under heavy small arms fire in this area next to the Cambodian border early in the morning on the 11th.

Major’s Edwards and Gosney, right side door gunner Tompkins, my self (the CE and left side door gunner) an artillery spotter and two officers (one a Lt. Col.) from the 25th flew over this area and spotted two possible areas for an LZ. The odd thing was the day before we had flown over this same area at altitude as a fly over recon. I had no idea we were fixing to go into battle in the same area the next day.

One LZ possibility was a dry lake bed, very close to the Cambodian border, divided on the South East end by a small grove of large trees in a line East and West forming a smaller clearing to the South and a much larger clearing (the lake bed) to the North East of it. This area was approximately 130-150 yards long and 35-45 yards wide and only about 300 yards from the Cambodian border. Then to the North East of this clearing separated by a heavy stand of large trees was another bombed out open field about 1/3 the size of the lake bed but running basically North West to South East and from the North West end to the Cambodian border a distance of about 500-600 meters with a slope to its North and East coming down to the clearing itself. Major Edwards decided to use the old bombed out clearing that ran North West to affect the maximum number of slicks transporting troops and to allow safer flight out of the LZ and South East away from the border back to the pick up points to load up more troops. The other aviation elements consisting of eighteen slicks and six gun ships were being staged and loaded. All we did, flying solo early that morning, was to recon the area for the insertion and for the bomb and/or artillery prep scheduled to commence soon. Our on board spotter requested two artillery rounds of WP fired to get a range on the LZ for later prep. The selected LZ was barely within range for any artillery prep.

While three companies of the 1st of the 12th were getting organized at Jackson’s Hole Fire Base, a spotter plane that we coordinated with, called in the LZ prep. We headed back to the load area at Jacksons Hole and then back to observe the air force pound the LZ about 5 min ahead of our flight. Our ship (Gator 6) then lead the insertion formation into the LZ flying ahead of the flight and at low level Guns Hot into and through the LZ at 100 knots. We dropped two smokes from my drop tube to mark the landing areas as we flew through the clearing. As we cleared the LZ and banked right (North East) and climbed as the lead gunships fired their rockets into the tree line on both sides of the LZ and opened up with their flex guns and crew manned door guns. As the lead slicks following also came in Hot and began to flare, land and off load troops. The B model Huey gunships continued to strafe the tree line in front of the formation as they pulled pitch and exited the area. The guns then set up their race track on either side of the LZ to provide fire support if needed. We also had two fully loaded A1E Sky Raiders from the air force on air cap to provide bomb support if needed.

Once the insertion was under way and the first group of six slicks had off loaded and the next flight was on their way in, we circled back to Jackson’s Hole and shut down for fuel. While Tompkins was fueling us up we received flash word that two gun ships had been shot down. The radio broadcast said one was burning when if went into the trees. We spooled up (I prayed silently for the crews and us) and headed back a fast as we could. The last six slicks were told to orbit as we came over the area at about 1000 feet to see if we could determine and locate the threat and look for any survivors. One of the two gun ships had crashed just over the border into Cambodia and the other spiraled into a wooded sloping area just at the West end of the LZ we were using. One was burning and sending up a thick black plume of smoke.

Mj. Edwards asked me to make sure there were smokes in the drop tube (I again prayed silently) and circled and dove down rapidly and flew over the south end of the dry lake bed at about 600 feet and still rapidly dropping altitude when we had radio contact with another one of our gun ships that had begun to make their gun run right beside us on the left side and 100-200 feet below us. Unfortunately they were hitting the East side and North end of the dry lake bed and I saw at least four 12.7’s (51cal. AA) open up on us (Oh how I was praying) from the middle and to the west side of the open field. I instinctively opened up on them returning fire from my door mounted M60 which jammed after about 20 (it seemed that anyway) rounds, I re-fed and it jammed again after a few rounds. Not only could I now see the gun emplacements but I thought I could hear the guns firing and could see (and feel) the tracers flying by (Major Gosney later said he could smell cordite and see the tracers flying by). I unclipped my M14 from its mount and emptied it and called on God again to protect us. Out my field of vision I saw the Lt. Col. laying down on the ships deck with his arms over the side holding and firing his M16 blindly out the cabin door. I say blindly, because his face was pressed down on the aluminum floor.

Almost as soon as they opened up on the two of us our 119th gun ship burst into flames and turned in a tight left turn, probably to return fire on the gun positions but didn’t complete the turn before the crew chief jumped and dangled from his harness as the aircraft hit the trees and disappeared on the west side of the clearing and probably into Cambodia as one of the others had.

Mj. Gosney yelled “I got it” and took the controls and brought us down fast and to the right putting trees between us and the guns. At the same time Mj. Edwards called “May day” thinking we were shot up too. One of the remaining three gun ships flew under us as we flew back to Jackson’s hole and radioed that they saw no fluids dropping from our helicopter.

Once we landed and shut down the turbine engine back at Jacksons Hole, we all started looking over the helicopter. I climbed all over the Huey looking for damage as Tompkins lay on his back and slid under the ship also looking for bullet holes that we knew we must have sustained. But we found none, not even a scratch! Gosney and Edwards said they couldn’t believe we sustained zero damage. I told them I had been praying awfully hard.

We huddled together amazed we had not been hit and I hear Mj. Edwards say “load up we have a small force on the ground and loaded slicks ready for take off and in the air and we had to find those gun positions for the air cap to destroy before continuing the insertion. That is when I almost went speechless because I realized that none of the other in our crew saw their location. I squeaked (having a hard time getting sound out) up that I could identify their location. Mj. Edwards said load up and none of our crew hesitated. I was scared to death and thought to myself that only God could help us now so I prayed. However the on board passengers, a Lt. Col. Over the infantry companies and a E6 spotter, we had from the 25th bailed on us, they said “they would find another ride.” It was just us. I guess they knew we might not come back and so they looked for another chopper to take them over the battle area.

Heading back to the fight, we heard over the radio net that one of our 119th Croc gunships on station fired several rockets into the field and the tree line where he saw tracers reaching up and shooting down the last helicopter. Since there had been loss of now three gunships, Cpt. Courts notified us that he did this rocket attack from a standoff while moving desistance to avoid also being also shot down. He had no confirmed visual on the gun emplacements. All 24 rockets were expended from his gunship leaving only his two door gunners and the 40mm grenade launcher mounted in the nose of his gunship. Too short of firing range on the 40mm to engage dug in 12.7 AA gun positions attacking our helicopters that could bring down a Huey helicopter from up to a half mile away. He was heading back to quickly reload and return to the fight as we were flying back in, a round trip requiring at a minimum 30 minutes.

We flew back over the battle site and we could still see the smoke from one of the earlier shoot downs. This time we were at about 1500 feet up. Now that I knew what I was looking for I counted eight 12.7 gun emplacements; six in the large part of the lake bed and two in the smaller southern most clearing. I felt fairly comfortable at this altitude but try as much as we could we could not get the Air Force guys to drop their ordinance because they were having a difficult time understanding the correct areas to hit. They were concerned, as they should be, of possibly hitting friendlies with their ordinance.

Mj. Edwards and Gosney agreed the only thing we could do was mark the site with smoke for identification. I knew we were dead meat if we tried that, but we had to try, so I prayed. Mj. Edwards said “Bohannon how many smokes do you have and it doesn’t matter the color.” I said six and Tompkins said four. I was still praying that God would guide us and protect us but felt very afraid of the plan we were developing as we circled over the site. Mj. Edwards then asked if either of us could throw, Tompkins said his arm was bad and I confessed that I used to pitch teenage league ball. Then he said here is what I am going to tell our air cap that we’re going to do. We are going to fly over the western edge of the dry lake bed just inside of the tree line north to south, as low and as fast as we can and we were to reposition ourselves in the jump seat in front of our gun wells and pull the pins of four smokes, each holding two with the rest between us. On his call I was to start throwing my two and reach over and get Tompkins two and throw them and Tompkins would pull the pin on another and hand it to me and possibly another if we had time and we were going to string them out along and just inside the tree line and instruct the Air Cap observe and to acknowledge the smoke drifting up out of the trees and drop their ordinance inside the dry lake bed from the middle over to the tree line in a North-South line through both clearings.

We came in at 110+ knots just above the tree line almost into Cambodia and on Mj. Edwards’ command I began to throw smoke. We actually threw seven smokes in a line down the tree line and then circled at low level back probably into Cambodia and climbed back to the south and back into Vietnam. We got an acknowledgement from the Air Cap and began to see the first dark blue A1E nose it down with smoke flowing from its wings as the A1E’s 20mm cannons opened up. As it came out of its dive it turned loose two napalm canisters and the other fell right in behind it doing the same thing. They climbed and came back in dropping several 250 lb bombs as they continued to strafe for two bombing runs each and finished off with third run dropping CBU. They were exactly on target.

One radio broadcast from the ground that I remember quite clearly was “my god, it looks like Route 66 down here.” After a long fourteen hour day of flying and combat we headed back to Camp Holloway.

The troupe insertion continued on into the late evening without any further enemy ground fire.

The loss was great for the 119th and also for some of the crews of the two gunships from other aviation companies that were shot down and suffered casualties. We lost Captain Walter R. Speare, 1Lt. Dee W. Stone and SP4 Edmond Schoening, all KIA and a severely injured SP4 Gennardo who crawled through the air strike with injuries suffered in the crash, to the LZ only to be terribly burned again by the napalm crossing the dry lake bed.

On the 12th we flew back to the LZ and shut down while the infantry brought the bodies of our gunship crew and we carefully loaded them on the cabin deck and flew back to Pleiku. Other bodies were stacked up in the LZ. They were either NVA enemy or members of the CIDG teams since they were all Asian. After delivering the three bodies of our brave comrades to graves registration, we stopped at the hospital at the Pleiku air field to visit with SP4 Gennardo. He was in bad shape and Mj. Gosney said they could not communicate with him and he did not respond to his name. As far as I know he was stabilized later in the week and flown to Japan. Flying back over to Camp Holloway Mj. Edwards told us that the 25th was going to let us pick one of the 12.7’s and bring it back to our company to set outside the orderly room. On the 13th as plans were being made to move the 25th and the SF CIDG group out to a safer location due to intense mortar fire coming from Cambodia we hovered low level over the gun emplacements to see what we were supposed to get. Everything was black and smelled of propellant and cordite from the Napalm, bombs and bullets and the grass fires started during the battle.

We never received the gun.

There were over 300 NVA KIA.
12 each 12.7 AA guns, 14 mortars and numerous rifles, small arms and explosives captured
We lost 7 members of our air crews KIA
The ground forces lost 6 KIA and 23 WIA
CIDG losses (I think) were 17 KIA
Why did the M60 jam?
And why did my brass catcher have over 200 spent shells in it?
I know I fired several in our run in to mark the LZ, but during the actual battle it seemed as if my door gun jammed almost immediately both times I tried to fire it.
Why did the Lt. Col. think the floor of an aircraft made out of aluminum would stop a bullet?
Why can’t we go into Cambodia to defeat the enemy?

On the 14th we started the process of moving the 1st of the 12th away from the border area. They had received close to 700 rounds of incoming mortar fire since the 12th of Nov. Relocation was completed a few days later with many flying hours logged by the 119th and others with no further casualties. We wrapped up our support of the engagement on the 13th or 14th of November.

I think it was either on the 13th or 14th that there was a bad crash at the POL site at the Oasis when a Huey slick with an inexperienced pilot tried to land in a thick cloud of red dirt thrown up by their helicopter rotor blades. They slammed their main rotor blades into the dike at the POL site and hit so hard the Main Rotor tore through the canopy taking the heads off both pilots. We refueled and then carried its very shook up door gunner and CE back to Pleiku after we refueled. Another ship took back the two pilots bodies.

A few days latter I rotated back to my normal assigned ship, Yellow 4, with Lt. Finch as my AC and Mr. Daniel, pilot.

By: Calvin Bohannon
      SP5 Crew Chief for Gator 6
      VN October 66-67

LAA – anti aircraft weapon
AC – aircraft commander
A1E Sky Raider – Prop driven single engine bomber
“B” model – Huey gun ship carrying 14 each 12.7” solid fueled High Explosive rockets, 4 each M60 flex guns and two door gunners with hand held M60’s
Brass catcher – container clipped onto the right side of the door mounted M60 machine gun to collect the brass of the spent rounds to keep them from damaging the tail rotor of the helicopter and to keep them off the cabin floor
CE – Chief engineer usually called the “crew chief”
CIDG – Civilian Irregular Defense Group, South Vietnamese)
Crew – Huey helicopter crew consisted of four men: Air Craft commander (the left seat pilot, pilot in right seat, Crew Chief (left side door gunner) and right side Door gunner. The door gun positions were sometimes referred to as the “men in the door” or man in the door.
“D” model – Huey helicopter used to transport troupes and supplies, four crew members: AC, pilot, CE and DG
DG – right side door gunner (CE also flew on the left side DG position on all routine and combat missions)
Fluids – JP4 jet fuel (carried 360 gal or 1600 lbs in fuel bladder), hydraulic fluids, urine and blood
Gator 6 – The call sign for the company commanders helicopter
LZ – Landing zone
M14 – 7.62 caliber semi-automatic rifle (issued as your personal weapon)
M60 – Machine gun, fires 740 rounds per minute of 7.62 caliber full metal jacket bullets
NVA – North Vietnamese Army (the enemy)
R&R – time off for rest and recuperation, 1 week per year in combat zone of operations
Smoke’s – Hand thrown Smoke grenades used to mark and/or identify locations. They came in various colors: Red, Green, Yellow, and Purple etc.
SP4 – Specialist fourth class, E4 pay grade enlisted Army
SP5 – Specialist fifth class, E5 pay grade enlisted Army
VN – The country of Vietnam
100 hour inspection – every 100 flying hours the helicopter would go into a two to three day maintenance inspection requiring replacement of critical lubricants, rotor inspection of the main rotor and the tail rotor, purging and regressing of all the drive shaft bearings, hot end inspection of the Lycoming turbine engine and avionics checks and calibration.

Calvin Bohannon <>
Baytown, TX USA - Tuesday, September 29, 2020 at 19:16:16 (EDT)

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