Command and Control: MACV-SOG.
Area of Operations: Laos.
Codename: Prairie Fire
Mission: Primary--General recon
Secondary--Find major NVA POW underground complex where U.S. POWs are held. Complex located near major intersection of Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.
Alternate--Cancel mission if opportunity to capture live NVA soldier arises.
Target Team: Spike Team (ST) Idaho.
Date: 6 October 1968
Launch site: Phu Bai, FOB #1, South Vietnam
Insertion Aircraft: Vietnamese-piloted Sikorsky H-34 helicopters. Kingbees.
Lead Ship: 1-0-U.S. team leader, 1-1-U.S. assistant team leader and 0-1-Vietnamese team leader.
Second Ship: 1-2-3rd American, 0-2-team interpreter and 0-3-point man, Vietnamese team.
Third Ship: Backup.
Assets on site: two A1E Skyraiders, one 0-2 covey, two UH-1B Huey gunships and Phantom F-4s on call.
I always though Sunday was a good day not to run missions, especially when the target area was in the deadly Prairie Fire AO (area of operation).
However, for several days prior to 6 October 1968, the weather had been cloudy and uncertain, which prevented any Forward Operating Base (FOB)-1 teams in Phu Bai from launching into Laos AO. FOB-1 sat along Highway 1, north of Phu Bai airport, on the north side of an ARVN training compound, just south of the tiny village of Phu Luong, about 10 miles south of Hue.
When there were no teams on the ground, the brass in Saigon got nervous. Hence, in the mornings the first thing the team leaders did was to check the mountains west of Phu Bai. If they were clear, the brass would try to get a team or a Hatchet Force inserted in Prairie Fire.
On Saturday, 5 October 1968, the weather had broken enough for ST Idaho One Zero (U.S. team leader) Staff Sergeant Donald W “Don” Wolken to fly over a VR (visual reconnaissance) over the target area. Wile Wolken was flying, Sau (the Vietnamese team leader) and I inspected the team.
Sunday morning, the weather was crystal clear, nary a cloud in the sky. Wolken and Sau quickly inspected the team: each American carried a minimum of 25 magazines for their CAR-15s, the Vietnamese carried 20 magazines. Wolken and I both carried sawed-off M-79s, 21 HE rounds and one tear gas round. Wolken also carried a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol with a suppressor. I carried the PRC-25 radio and a bunch of hand grenades, while Robinson and the Vietnamese carried several claymore mines and extra batteries for the PRC-25. Sau and all Americans carried URC-10 emergency radio also.
Shortly before we left, the team posed for a photograph, over the strong protests of Sau and our interpreter Hiep. They said we’d jinx the mission.
A few minutes later, we were on the H-34s flying west on the hour-plus flight to Laos. Those long flights to the target area were peaceful and memorable because we were flying high, where the air was cooler, looking at the dark, lush greens of the jungle. From 4,000 feet, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were beautiful. During these flights, I often thought about my grandfather’s farm in Belle Mead, New Jersey.
As the H-34s churned westward, my vision always seemed better, aided by the adrenaline that was flowing, anticipating the unknown. Once over Laos, the doorgunners test-fired their .30-caliber machine guns.
Then, the Kingbees went into a dying swan spiral, spinning madly toward the earth. The G-force pushed my stomach upward into my chest. At the last second, the pilot flared out and hovered a few feet off the ground. The right wheel of the Kingbee touched the bomb crater that was our LZ. While we were descending, Wolken sat in the door, looking at the LZ itself. I squatted behind him, with my hand on his left shoulder, watching the perimeter of the LZ for any enemy movement.
Now the blood was pounding through our veins.
As the Kingbee wheel again touched the lip of the bomb crater, Wolken jumped out and promptly disappeared in the elephant grass. I followed. When I landed on the crater, I started slipping down the outside lip. The angle alongside the hill was much steeper than I had realized and the ground was muddy and slippery. I started rolling down the hill, the same way Wolken had. Robinson and the Vietnamese successfully landed on the crater’s lip and laughed at Wolken and me. It took us several minutes to rejoin the team.
I radioed Sergeant First Class Robert “Spider” Parks, who was flying overhead in the 0-2 Covey, and told him that we were OK. Spider said he’d stand by for 10 more minutes before releasing the assets. Ten minutes later I broke squelch three times for the final team OK.
As we moved away from the LZ, Phouc was walking point, with Sau behind him. Wolken was third in line. I was behind him, Robinson was behind me while Hiep brought up the rear. We took a break as Phouc, Sau and Wolken applied mud to their bee stings.
About half an hour later, Phouc signaled that he heard a lot of activity in front of him. Within seconds we all heard the noise. At first, we thought it was an NVA regiment charging toward us. I got behind a log and pulled a pin from an M26 frag grenade, only to realize that we were being overrun by a chattering group of monkeys.
After being overrun, we went into the standard move-10 minutes, wait-10 minutes pace, on the principle that in the jungle you can learn more from hearing than seeing. Then around noon, we heard the first shot fired by an enemy tracker. By 1400 hours they sounded like they had located our trail. By dusk, the trackers had moved through the thick jungle quicker than we had and were closing in on us. We kept moving until last light, then we finally set up our RON (Rest [Remain] Over Night) site. As I moved out to place a claymore mine on our eastern perimeter, the tracker startled us b firing one last round, which sounded like he was less than 10 meters from our southern perimeter.
Because the trackers were so close, we didn’t eat until midnight, after I radioed a team OK to the airborne command center that flew over Southeast Asia 24 hours a day. Sau and Hiep went right to sleep. Between 2000 hours and 0200 hours the next morning, I listened to the tracker skirt our team, ending his travel in front of my claymore mine.
I wasn’t sure if he had located it or not, so I detonated it and woke up the team and half the jungle with the explosive roar. For the rest of the night, there was no more movement around our perimeter.
At first light, we moved on. When Spider flew over, I gave him a quick sitrep (situation report). Through the morning, we heard no more tracker shots or any obvious enemy movement. The only thing that concerned me was the fact that Sau’s eyes began to get bigger as the day progressed. By that time, he had been running missions for five years. He could smell the NVA. During one break, he said, “Beaucoup VC, beaucoup VC.” That scared me, because I hadn’t heard or seen anything to corroborate Sau’s intuition.
At noontime, I gave Spider a team OK, but told him Sau was nervous. Spider reminded me to trust Sau’s instincts and said he’d return at 1600 hours.
By now, Sau and Hiep had swapped places, with Sau in the rear and me in the number five slot next to him. Around 1300 hours, I heard Sau hiss like a snake. Across a ravine, on the hill we had just descended, were two NVA soldiers, armed with AK-47s and smiles.
What kind of game was this?! They didn’t raise their weapons or make any hostile moves. They just smiled at us.
Because they were no more than 45 yards away, I pulled out my sawed-off M79, indicating to Sau I’d like to permanently wipe the smiles off those smirking faces. Sau said, “no, beaucoup VC, di, di! (go, go).”
I told Wolken what happened and immediately we headed by high ground. Within an hour, we were atop a knoll big enough to hold ST Idaho. Wolken told me to get the PRC-25 and get Spider back over us ASAP.
By now, Sau’s eyes were bigger than saucers. I put the long antenna on the PRC-25 and made several calls on the primary, secondary and alternate frequencies, to no avail. I turned on the emergency beeper on the URC-10. That distress signal was on a channel which was supposed to be monitored at all times by all aircraft flying over the Prairie Fire AO.
No one responded. I opened a can of apricots and was sipping the sweet nectar when all hell broke loose.
Suddenly, the green jungle around us erupted with deafening full-automatic blasts from NVA-held AK-47s. Sau, Phouc, Hiep and Wolken responded instantly.
The crack of AK-47 rounds never sounded louder or closer. All I could see from our perimeter was the smoke, the red and orange blasts coming from the darker-than-ever green jungle, and green AK-47 tracers, which were flying over our heads.
The thunderous fury of dozen of men blasting away at each other on full automatic, within 10 or less feet of each other, kills all sounds. Numbs all eardrums.
Then, just as suddenly as the roar had begun, it stopped.
Everybody ran out of bullets, except for me, and I emptied my magazine toward the most intense area of enemy fire.
The only sounds audible through hurting ears were the metallic clicks of magazines being slammed into hot rifles and gun bolts sliding shut to resume the apocalyptic death roar.
ST Idaho won the reload race. Nobody was faster than Sau and Phouc at getting the first magazine out and the second one in. Within seconds we had gained fire superiority. At that instant, at the peak of the fire-fight, those brief, tense adrenaline-pumping seconds made all the other games in life seem like patty-cake. You miss your man here and you die.
The majority of the enemy firing was coming at us from the south and west parts of the small knoll. Wolken and I chucked a couple of M26s down the side of the knoll, in between blasts of full auto on our CAR-15s.
As soon as we gained complete fire superiority, I turned on the URC-10 beeper and started screaming into the PRC-25.
The small knoll saved us. The jungle was so thick and the knoll so small, only a score of NVA could rush us at once.
Soon they were stacking bodies and firing at us from behind their dead comrades. A lot of NVA soldiers died in those first few minutes of hell on earth.
For more than an hour, my cries and screams into the radio and URC-10 beeps went unanswered as the NVA mounted more mass attacks.
But the hill, the jungle and our CAR-15s worked against them as they continued to pile up or drag away more bodies. With no help around, conserving ammo while keeping Charlie back became a top priority.
Waiting several hours for help in the Prairie Fire AO after making contact with the NVA was not unusual. In fact, any time a team got help in less than an hour or two, people boasted about it as though it were a minor miracle because the AO was so far from Vietnam.
Finally, I heard Spider on the radio. He said an F-4 Phantom returning from a bombing run in Northern Laos had heard the beeper and called him.
I told Spider we had a “Prairie Fire Emergency,” which diverted all airborne assets in the AO to our target, including any F-4s that were heading north. Spider also said he had called the Judge and the Executioner--an Americal Division gunship team that was temporarily attached to our operation. Within minutes, Spider was over our position. He told me to pop smoke, Spider said he saw two yellows, which meant the NVA were monitoring our frequency.
We changed frequencies and I popped a violet smoke. A few minutes later, the first A1E Skyraider arrived on target and made a gun run on the western perimeter. He made his first napalm run on the south side and said, “Put your heads down. I’m going to make you sweat.”
He brought it so close we could feel the heat from the deadly jell. A few seconds later we smelled burning flesh. As he dove toward us a third time, the pilot said, in a quite Southern drawl, “It’s crispy critter time.”
When the NVA heard the old World War II plane making another run, they charged us in a desperate attempt to get close to us in order to avoid the Skyraider’s deadly ordnance.
Then we blasted away and pushed them back down the hill, and the Skyraider pushed them back toward us, like a death dance. Right then and there I thanked the Lord for Uncle Sam’s Air Force.
By now, each team member had developed lanes of fire down the hill. At one point when I was talking to Spider, I though I saw something moving in my lane of fire. All I could see was the ass of an NVA soldier crawling up the hill. I told Spider, “Wait one” (second). Then the NVA stuck up his head to se where he was, and the last thing he might have seen was a puff from my CAR-15 as his head exploded like a coconut.
For the next few hours, Spider and I worked numerous fast movers and A1Es, hitting the southern and eastern perimeters hard. The Air Force dumped thousands of mini-gun rounds, 20mm rounds, several 500-pound bombs, numerous napalm and CBU (Cluster Bomb Unit) canisters on the dauntless NVA troops. In between gun runs, Wolken and I would fire our M79s upward, like mortars, thorough one small opening in the jungle canopy.
About half an hour before dusk, Spider told us the Kingbees were on their way. And by that time, the Judge and Executioner had refueled and reloaded and were returning with them.
Ten minutes before the Kingbees arrived, Spider was like a master conductor, running F-4s and A1Es around our perimeter.
The Judge and the Executioner led the Kingbees into and L which was about 10 yards west of our perimeter. Spider had spotted a little ridge from our knoll to a knoll covered with elephant grass and small trees. The Kingbee could not land, but Captain Thinh roared in, chopping the tops off several small tress, and hovered 10 feet off the ground.
ST Idaho ran to the chopper. That wasn’t as easy as it sounded. It took us 10 minutes to cover those 10 yards.
The ground was wet and muddy. The elephant grass between 6 and 10 feet tall and thick. Because the grass was so thick I went first, trying to blaze a trail through it. When I fell, Wolken ran, literally ran over me, and plowed forward. When he fell, I returned the favor.
As we moved slowly toward the chopper, the activity around us heightened to a frenzy. The NVA knew what the Kingbee was doing. The NVA knew that they knew we were vulnerable. He directed the Judge and Executioner through gun runs along the eastern perimeter while the Kingbee hovered on the western edge.
Sau and Hiep covered our frantic, desperate drive to the chopper. As the Kingbee hovered about 8 feet above us, Wolken and I threw the other four members into the chopper. At some point during that craziness, I looked up at Capt. Thinh, and he was sitting there as cool as a Rocky Mountain breeze, keeping the aging H-34 hovering while taking numerous hits (the next morning, the maintenance crew counted 48 holes int he ancient ship).
Finally, Wolken told me to get in. By now, my adrenaline was roaring through my body like a berserk subway. I grabbed Wolken by his fatigue jacket and threw the 220-pound staff sergeant into the Kingbeee. Then I threw my rucksack and jumped up onto the ladder, where Wolken grabbed me by the shoulder while telling the gunner to get the hell out of there.
As Capt. Thinh lifted the Kingbee, Hiep and Sau blasted away out of the port windows, Phouc and Robinson blasted away out of the starboard window and Wolken and I emptied our last magazine into the dark jungle, which had dozens, if not hundreds, of muzzle flashes lighting up the darkness. As we ascended skyward, I fired my last M79 round and dropped my white phosphorous grenade, which looked spectacular against the quickly fading jungle.
Seconds later, the hell and fury and death of the LZ were behind us.
Suddenly, the cool night air hit us, as Wolken and I watched the final fleeting moments of the sweetest sunset we had ever seen in our lives.
We had survived. How many NVA hadn’t survived?
Capt. Thinh flew us back to Phu Bai. Before he returned to his base at Da Nang, I climbed up to the pilot’s seat and thanked him for saving our lives and told him he never had to pay for a drink in the FOB-1 club again.
Because it was late, I went to the mess hall and got some chow for Sau, Hiep and phouc and ate with them. Sau appeared as though nothing unusual had happened. I had never been so close to thunderous death before. Our meal was somber. Later I went to the club, where an Australian floor show was in progress. A lot of the guys wanted sex. I was happy to be alive. Later, when talking to a friend, I realized I had killed a man, perhaps more than one. The line from an old Doors song surfaced in my mind: “The war is over for the unknown soldier...bullet struck the helmeted head.” Silently, I thanked the Lord for sparing me, again.
Other stories by John "Tilt" Stryker Meyer
I Was There: John "Tilt" Stryker Meyer, One Zero of Spike Team Idaho