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War Stories

Easter Offensive - Mick 1972

(Credit to Mike Sloniker for collecting this story for the VHPA)

by Ken Mick (Centaur 49) - also see Mike Woods story


During 1971-72, I was a 1LT Cobra pilot and AC with F/4 Cav. My call sign was Centaur 49. The following narrative describes what happened to our unit during the Easter Offensive in 1972. I have not had access to detailed records, so have used my memory as the source of the following. Errors in fact and omissions are unintentional. I would enjoy hearing from fellow Centaurs and encourage others to elaborate.

I returned to RVN on 31 Mar 72 after a two-week leave to Columbus, Ohio. The trip seemed interminable and I was exhausted by the time I reached the unit at Long Binh. Of course, I was immediately placed on the flight schedule for the next day.

On 1 Apr 72 I flew 8.3 hours, south of Bear Cat, refueling several times and rearming twice. I was looking forward to the dedication party for our new troop O Club scheduled for that night. We had not had a real club of our own since we relocated from Lai Khe about a month earlier.

At around 2000 hours, CPT Haynie, the Cobra Platoon Leader, called us together. He said that the NVA were invading I Corps and that we were to be redeployed there the next day. As it was April Fool’s Day, we all thought he was joking.

Nevertheless, I packed my personal items and collapsed, but did not sleep much. I was very tired and very apprehensive about the move.

On 2 Apr 72, F/4 CAV left Long Binh and III Corps in a swarm of helicopters. As I remember it, we flew in three flights with the LOHs leading, followed by the Snakes, then the Slicks.. We refueled the first time near Phan Thiet on the coast. Two more refueling stops were made, including Cam Ranh Bay. At Cam Ranh, I stayed in my seat and slept while everyone fueled and most went to get food.

In early evening, we arrived at Marble Mountain in Danang. Again I was too tired to go anywhere to eat, but shared some Danish Salami I had brought back from the States with Mike Woods and went to sleep on the hangar floor. I had logged 8.8 hours that day.

The next day, we flew to Phu Bai; our new home. We took over an area which had previously been a US base, but had been given to the RVN after the US unit stood down. All that was left were huts with no doors or windows. Anything of value had been stripped. We were issued cots and settled in to await our briefings. Very few of us were familiar with our new AO.

Our new AO and the enemy situation dictated that we would use new tactics. In III Corps, we had flown with Pink Teams; A LOH (OH6) low, A Cobra high (usually 15-2500 Ft.), and a Slick taking notes on the enemy sightings, etc. Now, we would use two LOHs and two Cobras, so that we would have more coverage.

One of the first missions I flew was to cover some Chinooks removing the guns from FSB Ann. I was flying wing and we could see NVA almost everywhere around the base. As the Chinooks approached, explosions began to erupt on the base in their flight path. The Chinooks went around and the RVN on the fire base fled down one side of the hill. We fired rockets at the NVA, but it was a futile gesture and the base was lost.

During those first days, it seemed that all we were hearing was that one fire base after another was being overrun. We felt very alone.

Several days later, I was in Ops following one of our missions on the radio. One of our fire teams had run into some heavy fire. When the team returned, I went down to the revetment area to see what had happened. I heard my friend, Russ Miller, swearing and went to see him. He had reached behind his seat to retrieve his Cav hat from the ECU pipe which carried air to our seats. He put the hat on his head and it was very comical to see that it had been half burned away by an incendiary round. Russ didn’t see much humor in it, however.

On 7 Apr 72, I was flying wing with Dan Tyner as Team Leader in support of FSB Bastogne. Bastogne had been surrounded and every effort was being made to hold. The weather was bad and the Air Force was not able to provide much support. Ceilings were down on the mountaintops.

We flew west from Phu Bai, past FSB Birmingham and through a pass in the mountains with the clouds close above. The Fire base was mostly surrounded and we were told that we could fire anywhere outside the wire. We covered a slick trying to resupply a gun position on a pinnacle outside the main base. The slick had to hover up the side of the rock and immediately kick off it’s supplies upon reaching the top. We were flying a racetrack around Bastogne and were taking fire from the hillsides as we passed. It was like flying inside a sack. I don’t think I have ever been more frightened in my life.

After exiting the valley around Bastogne, we investigated some M41 tanks on the road nearby. They had been trying to get out of Veghel and had been ambushed by the NVA. We took fire from one of them and I remember how strange it was to get shot at with Orange tracer instead of the usual Green stuff. As we rolled in, I covered Tyner’s break by putting rockets right behind him. I wondered who was supposed to cover my break.

After a few weeks at Phu Bai, we moved East to Tan My. This was a former naval base on the barrier island at the mouth of the Perfume River near Hue. It was a much nicer place to live than Phu Bai. Most of our maintenance support was kept at Marble Mountain.

Phu Bai had concrete barracks with ceiling fans. It was right on the beach. The airstrip was made of PSP and the revetments were sand, covered with Pentaprime, which stuck to our boots forever. Tan My was a much more comfortable place to live, but we were on our own. The perimeter was manned by our own people.

Another major mission I remember involved a joint operation with F/8 CAV, the only other Air Cav unit in I Corps. On 11 Jun 72, during an operation northwest of Camp Eagle, they had lost a LOH to an RPG. They were organizing a flight to try to get the crew out. The area was surrounded by mountains and had lots of bad guys. We were aware by this time that the NVA was using SA7 heat-seeking missiles, but our only defense was to fly at treetop level and attempt to confuse them. We would soon be outfitted with exhaust deflectors (smokestacks which directed our exhaust gasses upwards through the rotor system to reduce our heat signature, thereby confusing the missile tracking), but had not yet received them. Needless to say, this mission sounded decidedly hairy.

I don’t remember the details, but the flight into the downed LOH vicinity took us over the mountains and past readily visible signs of Anti Aircraft sites. I kept expecting to receive a Strella up my tailpipe at any moment. As we reached the neared the area, you could see smoke rising from the missing helicopter. We went through a pass and into the valley beyond. Two LOHs flew over the downed bird, whereupon one of them was shot down with an RPG. All hell broke loose and we were all withdrawn from the area to Camp Eagle.

We were called to a briefing by the 11th CAG commander. He told us that he would like us to make one more try to get the crews back. The guys from F/8 who had now lost two crews were willing to make another try and we said we would go too. After refueling, we made another attempt to get into the area. We received heavy fire 1-2 klicks out. I only remember firing at 51 cal positions on the hillsides. At one point, I had one of the F/8 Cobras firing across my nose at other AA sites. We were unable to get near the downed aircraft.

Now most of our missions involved VRs to the north of Hue. At this point in time, Quang Tri had fallen and the RVN had set up a defensive line south of the My Chanh (?) River. All we had to do was fly north of the river and we would take fire. I remember seeing and shooting at NVA tanks (PT76) and personnel carriers. On one mission, I saw a strange shape in a field. It appeared to be a haystack, but when I flew near it, it fired at me. We called in Tac Air.

On another mission, I was shooting rockets at an NVA machine-gun site and almost flew into a French blockhouse while looking back at the NVA sight on my break. We flew so low that you had to be aware of things like that on the ground.

On another mission, I took heavy fire lost my hydraulics. I had Pappy Jones in my front seat. He had just recently joined our unit. I flew back to Tan My and successfully executed a running landing with stuck pedals. I did a great job, even though that always caused me problems on my check ride. After we came to a halt on the strip, Pappy looked back at me and began pointing above my head and laughing. I looked up and saw where an AK round had exited near my head. Pappy turned pale when I pointed an inch above his head and he saw where the round entered. As we exited the Cobra, I remember someone handing me a cold beer. God it tasted good!

The biggest and scariest mission I was involved with occurred on 11 Jul 72. It was to be an insertion of elements of the RVN Marines to retake Quang Tri. We had a huge briefing the night before, with representatives from F/4 & F/8 Cav, An ARA unit, the Blue Max who joined us from III Corps, where they had participated in the An Loc operation, the 48th AHC (Blue Star), and various Marine Aviation units from the carrier Iwo Jima. The plan involved numerous Navy and Air Force sorties against targets around Quang Tri and several Arc Lights. To hear the briefer tell it, there would be nothing left for us to shoot at when we got to the LZ!

As I remember the tactical plan, the Blue Max was to lead and expend all of their ordnance on the approaches to the LZ, in effect blasting an open path between the friendly lines south of the river and the insertion site, which was an enormous open field. F/4 would fly on the left of the Marine slicks and F/8 on the right, each with three Cobras. When the Marine H53s & H46s started their approach, we would run racetracks to the side suppressing any enemy fire. However, we were assured that the air strikes would render us superfluous.

            HH-53      H56SeaKnight

When we approached the river, the Blue Max darted ahead and salvoed their rockets then broke away. As we crossed the river, all hell broke loose. We began taking fire from all sides. One of the H53's was hit by a rocket or RPG and crashed in flames on the LZ. The Marines were taking heavy fire and shouting on Guard, which made it extremely difficult to understand anyone. We began to orbit to the left and I was struck by the lack of destruction on the ground. (We later learned that most of the Air Strikes were canceled because of the historical and cultural sites in the area.) I was taking fire and hits and returning fire through all quadrants of the racetrack. Finally, low on rockets, I lost my SCAS and decided to exit the area and orbit south of the river over an area controlled by friendlies.

Evidently, the friendlies were not home. I felt like I was inside a popcorn popper and heard numerous ball-peen hammer sounds from the airframe. I lost hydraulics and interest in everything else except returning to Tan My.

Meanwhile, the insertion continued. Several H46s landed in friendly areas with battle damage. I returned to Tan My and made a successful running landing; again with fixed pedals. I believe my co-pilot was B.J. Jans. The Cobra was a brand new 1970 model with less than 100 hours. The Maintenance Officer almost cried when he saw what I had done to his newest aircraft. The Cobra was slung out by a Chinook later.

The next day, I covered an extraction at the Quang Tri LZ. The mission was to pick up the Marine crew from the downed H53. As the slick approached, large numbers of RVN soldiers began running toward it. The Marines were loaded, but the Vietnamese tried to get on to get out of Quang Tri. Troops were hanging from the skids. One of the aircrew was shot by a Vietnamese. We finally got out of the area. Later, the Marines took a number of F/4 pilots to the Iwo Jima for lunch and to thank us for our support.

I am still amazed that the Quang Tri mission turned out as well as it did. It could have been a disaster with that many units participating. I’m glad that I never had to take part in a mess like that again.

F/4 Cav participated in numerous missions after the Quang Tri insertion. I saw the remains of the ARVN evacuation of Quang Tri on Highway 1: hundreds of burned-out vehicles and debris from the NVA ambush. I saw abandoned M48 tanks and destroyed PT76s. We lost CPT Paul Martindale and his co-pilot to Anti-Aircraft fire. CPT Ron Radcliffe and several other LOH pilots were shot down and many wounded.

In late August 72, we got the word that anyone incountry by a certain date would get an early deros. I fell into that category and went back to the world. I was sad to leave great friends like Mike Woods and Chuck O’Connell and many others, but eager to see my wife and home.

The above narrative does not cover more than a fraction of the F/4 CAV flights during the 1972 Easter Offensive. I encourage others to add their memories to mine.

Ken Mick, Centaur 49