Flying into southern Laos in the late afternoon of 8 February 1970, I was awakened by the frantic voice of my assistant team leader John Ingles saying, “We’re going in. The SOB's didn’t wake us up.”
The SOB's were the crew of the Sikorsky CH-53 flying us into our LZ. At that moment, I looked out the starboard door of the helicopter as we flew over two startled Laotian farmers, a woman and two water buffaloes. The big bird hopped over a hedgerow and landed in an adjacent field while Ingles and I frantically woke up the team.
I was madder than hell. It was bad enough that they didn’t alert us about being near the target area. That faux pas was compounded by flying so close to indigenous farmers and then depositing us in the middle of a field that was far from our primary LZ and the bridge that was the objective of our mission.
Prowling Air Force pilots were always knocking out bridges in Laos. But by early 1970, the brass had become aware of new underwater bridges the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were building along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. From the air it appeared as though the trails were interrupted by water, in some places several feet deep, yet it was apparent that the trucks heading south were crossing the streams with ease. A closer review of aerial photographs revealed that the inventive NVA had devised an underwater bridge which could support heavy trucking and which was not readily observed from the air, enhancing the bridges’ chances of survival.
One bridge is particular, about 35 kilometers southwest of the A Shau Valley in southern Laos, attracted the interest of the brass. Intelligence reports said the bridge was an engineering marvel, so the boys in Saigon wanted to know more about it, ASAP. Spike Team (ST) Idaho based in CCN (Command and Control North) was selected to run the mission.
There were problems from the start. Bad weather in Da Nang kept the team grounded at the launch site. There were also two major problems in the AO (Area of Operations): This north/south branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex was heavily traveled and, secondly, the vegetation on most of the surrounding hills and in the valley the trail ran through was generally sparse, with only scattered areas of thicker growth, which precluded jungle cover for recon teams.
The brass decided to get around the bad weather by flying ST Idaho to Thailand. We made the flight in a “blackbird,” a camouflaged C-123 with no insignia or obvious markers on it. When we landed in Thailand a blue Air Force van, complete with curtains and blacked-out windows, backed up to the plane and drove us to the 46th Special Forces Group compound in Nakhon Phanom.
To get around the thin vegetation problem, we planned to move at night and during early morning hours. We requested an insertion at first light the next morning. After a quick briefing, the CO (commanding officer) confirmed there would be an early morning launch using CH-53s to fly east into Laos.
The next day, 8 February 1970, we were scheduled to launch at 0700 hours. It wasn’t until 1350 hours that we finally got underway. After two hours of flight time we touched down at a CIA-operated camp atop a high mountain for refueling. By now we were all groggy. The doorgunner didn’t know how much longer the flight would be, so we laid down again.
We didn’t wake up until we were almost on the ground. We jumped out of the chopper with our packs draped over one arm, our web gear on the other and our CAR-15s dangling from our necks. The entire team was in various states of disarray as the CH-53 showered us with dirt, dust and debris when it powered off the LZ. We ran north to the nearest hedgerow on a gently rolling slope. We were several clicks south of our target in the southern end of a valley that had enormous mountains on the east and west sides. Intelligence reports said that as many as 200 trucks moved through it nightly. We were east of the main trail. We knew it was only a matter of time before hundreds of NVA troops and trackers would be pouring down that road looking for us.
After crossing the hedgerow, I split the team in half. Ingles went east and I went west until we ran into another hedgerow were we moved north, continuing down the hill. I advised each tail gunner to cover all tracks and occasionally blanket their steps with black pepper to thwart NVA tracking dogs.
We took no breaks. Darkness was closing in fast. With the team back together, we continued west into another small valley. We crossed a rocky stream and began climbing the first steep western ridge. Because the area was wide open and the vegetation was short, thin grass, the team went on line as everyone covered their tracks and laid down more pepper.
We moved straight up the hill, staying in the grass for more than 150 yards. We had to get as far away from the LZ as possible. As we headed up the hill, we moved between two large fingers of dense jungle growth which jutted down into the grassy area like the bottom tip of a large dark-green funnel. By now, we were all out of breath. The climb was tough and it was almost dark. We could hear noises in the large valley north of us and we had not yet set up our RON (rest/remain over night) location. The noise made us forget our dry throats, heaving lungs and aching knees and backs.
Sau, my Vietnamese team leader, moved south to the dark finger of jungle on our left and found a massive thicket of vines, thorns and undergrowth which had a double canopy of jungle growing on a steep hill. The hill had at least a 40-degree incline to it. “VC [Viet Cong] no find us here,” he said.
One by one, we burrowed deeply into the massive thicket. We tied ourselves to trees and scrub to prevent rolling down the steep hill. At 2200 hours we heard trucks on the main road. When they got to the field area they stopped moving south. Soon we heard dogs heading for the east side of the main road. By 0100 hours we heard troops moving up the slope toward our position.
The NVA soldiers were walking through the grass we had traveled through hours earlier. They were on both sides of the massive thicket we had burrowed into. One soldier walked up to the thicket but returned to his comrades without realizing that six CAR-15s were pointed in his direction.
At first light, we moved straight up the mountain. Sau had climbed a tree and observed NVA or Pathet Lao troops along the main trail. We couldn’t break cover.
For the rest of the day, we climbed that side of the steep mountain. Because of the vegetation and the terrain, we had to go straight up, sometimes climbing solid rock. Several times the hills were so steep that we had to tie together the six-foot strains of rope we used for our Swiss seats to make a long rope to scale the sheer vertical rock surfaces. It meant we had to take off our web gear and rucksacks, hoisting each piece up one at a time.
By noon we were dead tired. Moving in the jungle, especially for a large gangling Americans, was unusually difficult. Climbing straight up mountains in full combat gear without ropes and climbing equipment was downright exhausting. We too a long break at noon before attacking he mountain again. By last light, we had reached the top. With the exception of Sau, each team member fell asleep.
When morning broke, we awoke to a beautiful sunrise and found that we were atop a gorgeous Laotian mountain range. Scenic and bucolic wonders abounded. Back in the “real world” people would have paid hundreds of dollars to enjoy the view that lay before us.
Only when we hard the radio call were we jarred back into reality. Yes, we were on a beautiful mountaintop, but HQ wanted to know why we had only moved about 400 yards on the map--which just proved that no one in Saigon or Da Nang could read a map.
I gave Covey, our airborne radio link flying overhead, a quick mirror fix on our location and told him that we were going to head north along the ridge line, explaining that we had to abandon the original concept of staying in the valley due to intense enemy activity. The ridge line had enough vegetation to cover our movement. The next few hours were the most spectacular ones I ever spent in the Prairie Fire AO.
While moving north along the ridgeline, we began gradually descending, often crossing beautiful new vistas that sparked fond memories of skiing in the Rockies and hiking--without a gun--along the Presidential Range in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. At noontime, we found an area overrun with thousands of wild orchids in full, spectacular bloom. Back home, each plant was worth $5 to $50. The orchids gave us a false sense of euphoria. With the exception of Sau, everyone acted like a tourist, picking the orchids, sticking them in their hair, teeth, ears or jungle-fatigue bottom holes, or all of the above.
After a commo check with Covey, we moved out, continuing down the gentle slope and staying on or near the ridgeline. We were still sore from yesterday’s brutal climb. Yet we were still over three klicks away from the bridge.
We then came to a large open area more than 400 yards along. The sides of the mountain were too steep to walk on. Sau didn’t want to cross it until after dark. After that open expanse, the hill took a steep drop into heavy jungle, which would give us good cover for the remaining daylight hours and would provide a good RON site.
Against Sau’s wishes, we crossed the open area. I told Ingles and Chau to move down the mountain and see how it looked. Chau was 16. He had been on the team nearly two years, ever since we rebuilt after the previous ST Idaho had disappeared at a Prairie Fire target in May 1968. Chau’s sensitive ears heard the NVA moving up the mountain. He warned Ingles. They stopped moving because the enemy was within 20 feet of them. Ingles broke squelch on his URC-10 emergency radio several times, alerting me to his danger. I was back on top of the bare ridgeline, about 50 yards from him. I called a Prairie Fire Emergency, which alerted all aircraft in the area and would bring them to our location. Sau moved silently down the hill to assist Chau and Ingles.
In 10 minutes I made contact with an OV-10 Bronco which relayed my Prairie Fire Emergency report and turned toward our location. While I was talking to the pilot, Chau, Sau and Ingles sprang their impromptu ambush on the startled NVA-Pathet Lao troops. When the enemy point man was less than three feet away. Chau blew him back to eternity with a full-automatic burst from his CAR-15. Chau, Sau and Ingles hit them so hard and fast that the NVA-Pathet Lao couldn’t fire a return shot in initial contact. Ingles threw a hand grenade down the hill to make sure no one was close. Meantime, Son, Tuan and I received some inaccurate sniper fire from the south which Tuan quickly suppressed with the accurate delivery of three rounds from his 40mm M79 grenade launcher.
Within minutes the Bronco had arrived. The pilot said he observed more enemy activity north of us along the hill Ingles and Sau were on. He made a run firing his rockets into their position. The he said, “I’ve got two gits of bad news for you:’ Nam is socked in. No helicopter assets can launch from there to extract your team, which means Thailand assets, which means at least three hours before the birds arrive here. And south of your location are there are approximately a dozen troops about 800 yards from your location moving north toward you. I think you’d better sit tight until we get some assets here.”
By 1430 hours, Covey was over us and affirmed the sit-tight suggestion. He agreed that the east and west sides of the mountain were too steep to climb straight down and confirmed that the NVA were coming at us from the south and north. For the next half hour, the NVA-Pathet Lao troops tried to find us. I directed several A-1E Skyraider gun runs south of our position. Our team fired their CAR-15s only when an NVA soldier was near them. Sau went back down the north side of the hill and rigged a booby-trapped claymore with a pressure-release firing device.
At 1600 hours a 12.7mm heavy machine-gun position in the valley east of our position opened up for the first time on the A-1Es. I was sitting on the east side of the mountain looking down into the valley floor. Sau, Chau and Ingles secured the northern slope while Son and Tuan were on the western side of the mountain. The A-1E pilot was pissed. He wanted to nail that 12.7mm, ASAP. I told him to follow my tracers as I fired several 5.56mm rounds toward a clump of trees in the valley, which was several thousand feet away. He saw my tracers and said, “Thanks, partner.”
I then watched the most beautiful napalm dive I’d ever seen. The pilot came out of the sky straight down, with his engine screaming at top RPM level. I thought I was watching a World War II movie. At the absolute last second he pulled out of the dive, releasing his napalm canister. It was a perfect strike. He generated one secondary explosion which was probably the gunner’s ammo cache. The 12.7mm never whispered another sound.
From my position, looking south I could also see all the way back up the mountain slope we had walked down earlier, a gradual open area of approximately 400 yards. For the next three hours I directed air strikes around our position and in the valley.
At 1930 hours we heard the CH-53s coming our way. The NVA pushed up the hill from the north and hit Sau’s claymore. Another 12.7mm opened up in the valley and I saw an NVA soldier climb into a tree about 300 yards away with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) launcher. He was looking for ST Idaho. For more than a minute I held him in my CAR-15 gun sight. When someone handed him the rocket, I pulled the trigger once--he dropped out of the tree. Seconds later, one of the CH-53 pilots commented on the ground fire he was taking, then announced, “I think we have some mechanical problems--we’re going home.” They were less than two klicks out when they disappeared into the west with the fading sun. Our morale sank as they vanished into the sunset. These pilots were not the famed Jolly Green pilots from Da Nang who flew through hell fire and storms to pull out CCN teams and downed pilots. After cursing out the westward pilots, I told the team to take a nap. It was going to be a long night. Ingles and Sau maintained a watch while we slept.
Around 1930 hours, Ingles awoke me saying, “Wake up. You’re not going to believe this!” as he pointed south, up the mountainside we had walked down earlier. From about 75 yards south of our perimeter, up the mountain as far as we could see, there were dozens of lanterns with several soldiers marching between each light. Ditto north of us. The NVA were coming up that hill en masse. Ditto in the valley east of us, where more than a dozen trucks were unloading hundreds of troops. Ditto across the valley, up on the plateau, where there were several hundred lights. And in a smaller valley west of us, more lights. More NVA.
All of a sudden I felt real lonely. And I started praying.
My prayer was answered. A few minutes later, the first Spectre C-130 arrived on target. It had a computerized gun system comprised of a 105mm howitzer, a 40mm cannon, two 20mm cannons and four 7.62mm minigun's, which could be linked with my strobe light. Once linked, the gunner could lock his four minigun's, each capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute, and two 20mm cannons on to targets five feet from the strobe light. On this night, however, we had a unique problem. The pilot circling over us complained that he couldn’t pick out my strobe light because there were so many lights surrounding us.
“No problem, “ I said. “I’ll just turn off my light. You get the rest. Hit the ridgeline west of the valley first. Give me one minute to put my team on the side of the mountain.” I moved the team back to where the ridgeline dipped down the mountain, where Ingles, Sau and Chau had ambushed the NVA earlier.
The Spectre put on an amazing display of firepower. And once again we silently lifted praise for being on the side that had Uncle Sam’s Air Force. After ripping up scores of bodies on the ridgeline, the Spectre moved his deadly fire into the valley and snuffed out more lights and lives. Miraculously, ST Idaho was unscathed.
Charlie got the message and doused his collective lights.
The Spectre crew had expended all ordnance and the pilot apologized for running out of ammo. Before he left, he asked me to turn on my strobe light to get a fix on our position. Tuan stuck his strobe light into the M79 grenade launcher barrel, pointed it upward to eliminate any lateral reflections, and marked our position.
“I’ve got no problem locking in on your position now,” said the pilot. “You’re on the ridge. We can see heavy enemy activity south of your location. More trucks in the valley and on the mountains east of the valley. Don’t go anywhere,” he quipped.
The next Spectre arrived seconds later. He quickly locked on to our strobe light and worked the southern slope real hard, marching his guns right up the southern trail to the top of the ridge and beyond our line of sight. Then he worked the valley and the eastern mountain ridge. A third Spectre arrived and again worked our southern perimeter. There was no light, no moon, no stars. The only sound was the roar of the C-130, which could not bee seen from earth except when it opened fire with its cannons.
Occasionally, when the Spectre moved to other targets, we’d hear the NVA dragging away their dead comrades. During one lull between the third and fourth Spectre, Sau and Chau crawled out and placed two claymores south of our position. They crawled through thin grass which about five feet tall. At 0045 hours, Sau said some NVA were in the grass about 60 yards south of us. A mew minutes later he blew the claymores. Claymores always sounded more thunderous and deadly at night. After the dust settled, we again heard NVA troops dragging away dead bodies. They never spoke. We heard no cries of anguish. Their silent suffering was eerie.
At 0130 hours, Sau said he heard Charlie's crawling toward us. I threw a grenade. The crawling stopped. We again heard dragging noises. Then Cau said he heard them. This time, Sau gave me a couple of rocks to throw. I heaved the first one and heard retreating footsteps. I threw the second one. Sau said he heard them retreating. How many? we couldn’t tell.
Finally, the next Spectre arrived. He locked in on our strobe light and quickly dumped a series of flares. Sau’s eyes were bigger than pizza tins. The NVA were within 15 yards of us! I asked the pilot how close he could bring the ordnance to my strobe light.
“As close as you want it,” he replied.
“I want it five feet in front of my southern perimeter,” I said.
“I can’t bring it any closer than 25 yards to your perimeter unless you are willing to accept the responsibility for any casualties we may accidentally inflict on your team,” the pilot said.
I told him I accept full responsibility for any casualties. “Bring it in as tig
ht as you can to the light. I’m holding it now. Move south from my light. I’ll take my chances with you.”
The gun crew opened fire. The fusillade cracked in over our heads. The earth in front of us erupted as the rounds ripped into the ground, kicking up stones and dirt and knocking down NVA soldiers. The Spectre slowly marched his deadly 7.62mm and 20mm rounds southward from our strobe light, moving up the ridge. The precision and accuracy of those ships flying 1,500 feet above us was awesome, absolutely mind-boggling. He dropped more flares. This time there was no movement south of us. Chau said there were “beaucoup dead VC.” We expended the rest of the gun crew’s ordnance in the valley as we heard more trucks pulling in.
Another Spectre circled us and laid down its deadly ring of fire, again bringing it to within five feet of our strobe light. Around 0300 to 0400 hours, some early morning fog and haze moved in as Spectre moved out. And then the NVA moved at us again, from the south, with a vengeance. Spectre had killed a lot of their brave and dedicated comrades. But we held them back with the “guess-whether-I’m-throwing-a-grenade-or-not” tactic. We abstained from firing our weapons because the flashes would have marked our position too clearly for the RPG-7 gunners, who had fired several rounds during the night but hadn’t come close to our perimeter. We played that deadly game until sunrise. Once we broke a major thrust with a white phosphorus grenade. We couldn’t see them, but we could smell burning flesh.
Around 0630 hours, we heard an NVA troop calling roll in the distance. Few people answered him. We noticed for the first time that the five-foot-tall grass around us had been chopped down a couple of feet by the Spectre’s barrages of deadly gunfire.
When the sun burned off the fog, we worked tactical air strikes with Phantom F-4 jets and the old reliable but deadly A-1E Skyraiders. A couple of 12.7mm positions opened fire and hit one of the A1Es. A Phantom blew one gun crew to hell with a 500 pound bomb. The A-1E knocked out the second 12.7mm minutes after it opened fire. This time the CH-53s made it to our LZ without any “mechanical problems.” The extraction was calm, relatively speaking, as we only took small-arms fire from a couple dozen AK's on the southern ridge.
It felt peculiar heading west. It felt great being alive. Again we silently thanked the Lord for sparing ST Idaho and for blessing us with those awesome Spectre's.
Other stories by John "Tilt" Stryker Meyer
I Was There: John "Tilt" Stryker Meyer, One Zero of Spike Team Idaho
Never On Sunday: John "Tilt" Stryker Meyer, One Zero of Spike Team Idaho