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War Stories

Firefight in the Hobo

Charles "Pat" "Juaquin" Eastes - see also Battle of the Hobo Woods.

Pat Eastes has taken portions of several actual Centaur gunteam missions and woven them into a narrative that leaves the reader with a very clear picture of what it was really like to fly Close Air Support missions. It is personal; it is emotional; it is real. Bob Graham says that this type of narrative is a far more complete way to tell our stories than a stack of after action reports. (Jan - Feb 1968)

(Note: Even though the 12.7 mm enemy anti-aircraft gun was technically a 51 caliber, most of us refered to it as a 50.)


(Bobcat Charlie 6 is the company commander of Co C, 1st Bn, 5th Inf (Mech))

0100 Hrs. Sleep is fitful at best, with the knowledge that mortars or rockets are probable at any time. Being on Number 1 standby is another reason to toss and turn, since the horn can blow and bring you back into the war in seconds. Not to mention the heat that permeates everything and the omnipresent feeling that each minute could be your last. But sleep, even in this form, is preferable to the alternative.

When the klaxon horn sounds, Juaquin is making passionate love to a beautiful roundeyed lady. The horn jolts him from his fantasy and back to Nam. Already semi-dressed in his gray flightsuit left over from flight school a few months ago, he awakes like a jolt of electricity has zapped him. Kicking the mosquito net away, he sits on his rack, almost unconsciously putting on his boots, after turning them over and shaking them to dislodge any possible centipedes. There are no laces to lace, only zippers to speed the operation. On the run to the Ops shack, he zips his flight suit. The OD in Ops gives him the quick version of the scenario; “Unit in contact, Hobo, requesting fire support.” Ops gives Juaquin a note with radio frequencies, map coordinates, and callsigns as he runs by.

The flightline is only a couple hundred feet from Ops, and the two UH1C gunships are on the hotpad. Before dark, the aircraft had been preflighted, and all systems had been checked, so when the crew of four gets there, it is only a matter of putting on chest protectors, hitting the battery switch, and pulling the trigger on the collective, which starts the all too familiar turbine whine as the Lycoming engine comes to life. Juaquin sits in the right seat, starting the aircraft, while (Mike) Galloway, the Peter Pilot, gets his titty protector on and straps in. The crewchief and gunner are already sitting in their seats in the back. The crewchief has slept in the aircraft to save time, and besides, this is His airplane, and he is very protective of it. Sgt (Woody) Gardner knows his Huey much better than either of the Warrant Officers that fly it, and he is very outspoken about what they do to His aircraft. Ward, the gunner, is new to flying, having just spent 8 months in a Grunt unit. He sits on the right side of the chopper, Gardner on the left.

By the time that the Huey is up to operating RPM of 6600, Galloway is strapped in, and Juaquin turns the helicopter over to him. Galloway picks up the helicopter to a low hover as all on board talk over the intercom, to check that the commo is working. Juaquin calls to Centaur 24, his wingman, on UHF, confirming that he is “up.”

“Cu Chi Tower, Centaur 43 has a flight of two, scramble from the Corral for takeoff.” The tower operator has already seen the activity in the Corral, the Centaurs area and immediately answers Juaquin. “Centaur 43, you are clear for departure direct, no other traffic, wind two one zero at 5, altimeter two niner niner four, good hunting, Sir.”

“43 on the go,” is Juaquin’s response, as Galloway coaxes the heavily loaded gunship through translational lift, Juaquin watching the instrument panel, particularly the torque meter and the RPM. This bird, 461, has about average power for a Charlie model Huey, and the RPM bleeds off to 6200 before the aircraft starts flying. The red RPM warning light is illuminated, but the audio warning circuit breaker is pulled so that the irritating and very attention getting wail doesn’t permeate the helmet radios of the crew. None of the guns have the breaker active, because every takeoff in these conditions will bleed off some RPM. These aircraft are always over Max Gross Weight restrictions, so everyone is very interested in takeoff. It is always a small adventure. Night takeoffs aren’t so bad, because the heat is less intense, but they add lowered visibility to the equation. This takeoff is uneventful, and the air feels better as the ship gains altitude.

As soon as the aircraft is flying, Juaquin is looking at his map, seeing just where the coordinates are that he has been ordered to. During the climbout, Juaquin gives the crew all he knows, which isn’t much. “We have Bobcat Charlie in contact, near the Mushroom.” Galloway initiates a 150 degree turn to the right, pointing the Huey in the general direction of the Mushroom, a place on the Saigon River that the crew knows all too well. Many times they have been there, and always they have been shot at. The area is called the Mushroom because of the appearance of the river on the map, the bends and turns somewhat resembling an outline of the fungus. This is the Hobo Woods, and it is on the southern edge of what is known as the Iron Triangle. All of this country is “Indian country.” Defoliation, B52s, constant Search and Destroy missions notwithstanding, this is Charlie’s AO, and it never fails to bring contact to whomever ventures in. Less than a year ago, Operation “Cedar Falls,” a classic Hammer and Anvil operation, made this area the Anvil, and the joint operation of the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions supposedly put the hurt on the Communist forces here. Tonight, they are back in force.

Juaquin calls 24, to confirm that they have commo and that 24 knows what they are going to. 24 is Dave Minkowich, a relatively experienced AC (aircraft commander), and Juaquin knows that Mink can do the job. 24s Peter Pilot is a new guy and Juaquin hasn’t flown with him, but has not heard good things. But this is of no concern as they near the Contact, which is easy to spot in the blackness of Vietnam. The Bobcats are a Mech Infantry unit, and Charlie has been good enough to illuminate the area by destroying at least two APCs. The yellow/red glow can be seen from quite a distance, and the occasional tracer can be seen, as well.

Juaquin directs 24 to come up on Bobcat Charlie’s push (frequency). “Bobcat Charlie 6, Centaur 43, over.”

“Centaur, Bobcat Charlie 6, over.”

“Charlie 6, we are a light fire team enroute, ETA zero five, SITREP, over.”

“Centaur, we are in contact with an unknown NVA force, we have two Kilo, 4 or 5 Whiskey, and two APCs on fire. Can you see our position, over?”

“Roger, Bobcat, we have your position, where are the bad guys, over?” Juaquin now knows that the Bobcats are in deep shit, with two dead and several wounded. The adrenaline level in the fire team, already high, raises a level or two, just as one of the APCs explodes, having the ammunition cook off.

“Wait, out.” Bobcat Charlie 6 is a bit busy.

“Bobcat Charlie 6, Centaur 43, we are in a holding pattern to your Sierra (south), awaiting instructions, over.” Juaquin enters a slow right hand turn, with 24 in tactical trail, following the top rotating beacon of Juaquin’s ship, since the rest of the position lights are turned off. No need to give Charlie too much of a target.

After about a minute, but what seems like a lot more, Charlie 6 responds. “Centaurs, enemy is approximately 100 meters to our November (north). Our line spreads from the easternmost burning APC about 50 meters. We need your fire to go about 100 meters November of the western APC, over.”

“Roger, Bobcat, wait one.” On Centaur UHF, Juaquin calls, “24, 43, did you copy?”

“43, 24, Rog.”

“24, 43, fire mission, over.”

“Go ahead.”

“One pass, I will expend two rockets for registration, heading 050, right break.”

“Roger, I have you covered.”

During the transmission, Galloway has been positioning the chopper and has the aircraft set up on a course of 051. The good guys are off the right side of the aircraft, and Juaquin takes the controls for the first time since the mission begins. Galloway mans the miniguns, but on this pass he will not shoot unless directed to. The first pass is to confirm to the ground units and the fire team that they are all on the same page. The crew is ready with their M60 machineguns, but this first run is just to figure out where to put the fire.

“24, 43, rolling in.” Juaquin points the nose of the Huey at the area agreed upon, and the 30 degree dive brings the noise and the airspeed up quickly. As Juaquin pushes the thumb button on the left side of the cyclic, a “WHOOSH,” and then another comes from the right side of the aircraft, and with a shower of orange sparks, two 2.75 inch rockets with HE (High Explosive) warheads fly towards the target.

“43, breaking right.” As Juaquin breaks out of the dive and turns the aircraft back over the relative safety of the US troops on the ground, Gardner comes over the intercom, “RECEIVING FIRE!”, and his M60 answers the tracers that are flying up toward the gunship.

“Centaurs, that was right on, over.” Bobcat Charlie 6 is ready to hunker down and let the gunships go to work.

“Roger, Bobcat, we will be rolling in.”

“43, 24, the guy with the AK had your number.”

“Rog, 24, expend 51 percent, two passes, over.”

“Roger that.”

Galloway now has the minie sight trained on the target area, as Juaquin lines up the aircraft for the run. As 461 rolls in, Galloway hits the trigger, and the minies let loose with 2400 rounds per minute. The one tracer for every four rounds looks like two long red snakes leaving the aircraft for the target. Three more WHOOSHES come from the starboard side of the gunship as three more rockets are sent towards the bad guys. Gardner and Ward are both firing their 60s, and with all this fury, some NVA has the balls to shoot back, and he is good, sending tracers all around the aircraft. The crew winces as the “POP” of the AK rounds speed by their bird, and Juaquin horses the aircraft over in a steep right climbing turn. As soon as 43 breaks, 24 is already rolling in, putting his fire right on the guy with the AK.

From a spot a couple of hundred meters north of the target, 461 gets a dose of a 50 cal, the ChiCom 12.7mm antiaircraft gun which is intensely feared and hated by helicopter crews. “Shit, 50!” is Gardner’s call as it becomes all too apparent to the rest of the crew, as the BIG tracers scream by , making the AK look like child’s play in comparison.

“24, 43, watch that 51!”

“No shit 43, we took a hit from it.”

“You OK?”

“Rog, we are in the green.”

“Bobcat, Centaur 43, we are going to take care of that 51 for a minute.”

“Roger, Centaur, we are hunkering down.” Bobcat Charlie 6 is an experienced infantry 1st Lieutenant, and he knows that 50s are not conducive to gunship crews’ health.

“24, 43, we are going to get that 50, heading about 020, right break.”

“Gardner, line me up on that bastard,” Juaquin is now sweating profusely, his grip tightening on the controls. This is not going to be fun.

“OK, a little left, whoa, dead ahead,” Gardner’s intensity is evident in his voice.

“Hose the fucker,” Juaquin says to Galloway, who lets the minies roar. As the minieguns bark, there is no response from the 51, but about 30 degrees to the right, another 50 opens up, and this time, the aircraft shakes violently as at least one of the big rounds hits home.

As Juaquin yells “SHIT!” over the intercom, he yanks the aircraft to the right, pointing it at the offending 51 and rolls in, dumping rockets as fast as they will fire. The airspeed indicator shows 140 knots as Juaquin breaks violently right, Gardner leaning out, putting more fire on the 50’s position, and as 24 breaks, the first 51 opens up, with tracers zipping by, and another sickening shudder from the aircraft indicates yet another hit.

Centaur 24 meanwhile has seen that 50 number two is no longer firing, and puts down serious fire on number one. The first 51 responds momentarily, then his fire is silenced. AK 47 fire becomes intense from several directions, and it becomes obvious that the Bobcats have gotten into more than they can handle.

“Everybody OK?” Juaquin’s question is answered in the affirmative from Gardner and Ward, and he can see Galloway in the red glow of the instrument panel. A quick check of the instruments shows everything to be operating smoothly, so the hits from the 50s must not have done too much damage, they hope. The Huey is handling OK, but there is a new vibration that is troubling to Juaquin.

“Bobcat, this is Centaur 43, we took some hits on that pass. Did you observe the fire?” A dumb question, but Juaquin is hoping that Charlie 6 can give a hand.

“Centaur 43, Bobcat Charlie 6, yeah, we saw. It looks like there is a larger force than we knew. Can you request more guns?’

“Roger, way ahead of you.” Juaquin is already calling Centaur Ops, giving them a SITREP and requesting Number 2 Standby to be scrambled.

“Bobcat, Centaur, we are going to make one more pass, and we have another fireteam on the way. Are you calling ARTY, over?’

“Roger, wait, out.”

“24, 43, one more pass, I will put my fire on the original target and expend 100%. If no 50s, expend on the original target, and we will be out of here, over.”

“43, 24 Roger, my aircraft is flying kind of funny, over.”

“OK for one more pass?”
“Yeah, I think so.”

“Rolling in.” Juaquin again rolls in on the first target, and the AK s light up, but no 50s this time. WHOOSH WHOOSH, BRAAAAAPPP and the POPPOPOP of the door guns are more noise than most people will ever hear, but even through the fire, they can hear the radio, with Bobcat Charlie 6 yelling, “Good fire, lay it on them!” One of Juaquins’ rockets hits and causes a small explosion, then a second, larger explosion. The NVA must have had some type of ammunition cache, because the secondary becomes a big BOOM that can be heard in the helicopter.

“24, 43, you still there?”

“Roger, expended, over.”

“Roger, we are enroute to Charlie Charlie.”

“Centaur Ops, Centaur 43, “ Juaquin called over the Centaur FM freq.

“43, Ops, over,” the OD’s voice sounded strained.

“We are returning to Charlie Charlie, both aircraft have taken hits, you might want to scramble Number Three standby, we still have a Sierra Storm out here. We are going to rearm and assess damage, over.”

“Roger, 43, be advised we just had a few rounds of 81 Mike Mike on the November end of Charlie Charlie, over. “

“Thanks a lot.” Oh boy, here we are expended except for door guns, with at least a couple of hits in both aircraft, and now Cu Chi is taking mortar fire.

“Cu Chi Tower, Centaur 43 is a flight of two for the Arm Pit, ETA zero three, over.”

“Roger, 43, clear to land at your own risk, be advised Cu Chi is under mortar attack, over.”

“43 and 24 will be approaching in Blackout. Observing Mad Minute on North wire, over.” The grunts on the north end of the basecamp had opened up with everything they had, hoping to discourage whoever was mortaring the camp to stop it. It wasn’t working, and the Centaurs could see a couple of mortar rounds landing on the northwest corner of the camp. Luckily, they were heading to the Arm Pit, the gunship rearming point on the northeast side of Cu Chi.

Juaquin made the approach, and at the last minute, Galloway flipped on the landing light so that they could see if they were about to land on anything dangerous. The approach was hot, and Juaquin had to flare to slow their landing before putting the Huey rather indelicately on the ground. As soon as they touched down, Gardner and Ward were out, looking for damage from the bullets. “Sir, shut this son of a bitch down,” Gardner’s voice was not happy.

“What’s up?” Juaquin asked.

“Big fucking hole in the tail rotor driveshaft cover.”

“OK, I’m going to have a look.” Juaquin unstrapped, and went to the tail section of the Huey. Gardner pointed with his flashlight to a ragged hole in the top part of the tailboom, where the tail rotor driveshaft was. Tail rotor failure was not a healthy thing, and it looked from the size of the hole that the driveshaft could not help but be damaged. “Shit. Mike, we’re Red X’d. Big hole in the driveshaft cover. Shut her down.” Galloway rolled off the throttle to flight idle, giving the engine a minute to cool down. A call to Ops told them that 461 was grounded at the Arm Pit, and the crew needed a ride back to the Corral.

“24, 43, we are down. We are leaving the bird here. What’s your story?”

“A couple of holes, but nothing major that we can see. We are going to rearm and refuel, and then we’ll go back to Ops, OK?”

“Yeah, we have ground transport enroute for us. See you there.”

As the big rotors finally quit turning, a more thorough damage assessment showed a 50 cal hole in one of the main rotors, and another in the belly of the aircraft. Fuel was leaking out of the low hole. Gardner opened the tail rotor driveshaft cover, and a large hole in the driveshaft was scary to behold. Had the NVA gunner been a bit more lucky, the bullet would have completely severed the driveshaft, leaving 461 with no torque control. Helicopters don’t fly well with no tail rotor, and this would have meant at best, a running landing/controlled crash in basecamp, but more likely rolling the whole thing up in a little ball in bad guy country. Juaquin was hoping about this time that there would be no more flyable aircraft left, so that he and his crew could listen to the rest of the fight in the Ops shack. He had had enough fun for one night.

After a short ride in a 3/4 ton, Juaquin , Galloway, Gardner, and Ward walked in to the Operations shack. No mortars had fallen in a few minutes. The OD, Lt. Patterson, grinned as he looked at the crew. “Juaquin, this is your lucky night. Number 2 and 3 standby took our last flyable guns, so you get to go to beddy bye after debriefing. How did you break your airplane?”

“Gardner, Ward, goodnight. You will have a long day tomorrow, no, today, putting 461 back together. See you later.”

The radio crackled. “40, receiving fire, breaking right!” It sounded like things weren’t much better at the fight.

Juaquin and Galloway gave Patterson, a scout pilot when not assigned to Operations a quick rundown of what had gone on at the Mushroom. “We must have got those 50s,” Galloway was animated in his description of the shooting. “Man, those fuckers really rock the aircraft when they hit.”

“Those tracers look as big as basketballs coming at you,” added Juaquin. Although tired, the adrenaline and plain fear would keep them all up for most of the rest of the night. Juaquin noticed that his hands were shaking, and it certainly wasn’t because of any cold weather. As Juaquin remembered the fight now, it seemed as if it had all been in slow motion. What had been only a few minutes in real time seemed interminable in his memory.

“Let’s get some sleep, Mike.” As they headed to a bunker, rather than a hooch, the two pilots didn’t say much . It was good to be alive.