Above the A Shau

By Forrest Frields


The 1/9th Cav Regiment was the Eyes and Ears of the 1st Cav Division in South Vietnam. We were Scouts. There were 3 air troops and 1 ground troop + HHQ Co. in the Regiment. Each air troop was in fact a mini army unto itself; each troop had an infantry platoon (named 'Blue'); a UH-1H helicopter platoon capable of 'air lifting" the Blues into the field; an air Weapons platoon of UH-1C gunships (named "Red") capable of attacking the enemy and/protecting the Blues at deployment. The last segment of the troop is the one I belonged to and will write about in this story: There was a platoon of Aero Scouts flying (at different times) OH-13, OH-6A and Oh-58 Light Observation Helicopters. All are affectionately referred to as LOH - "Loaches." The Scouts were named "White." We had our own Maintenance platoon to keep our birds flying.

In early February 1968 the fabled TET Offensive was in full sway. "Charlie," pushed to the forefront by the NVA, struck all over RVN including invading the heretofore sacrosanct Imperial City of Hue.

We kicked their ass on the battlefield; we won the battle but they went on to win the war.

My first mission as a Scout, flying an old OH-13 out of Dong Ha near Khe Sanh, was to join up with one of our gunships to check out an area near the Laotian border. I was "White"; the gunship was "Red" together we were a "Pink Team." I flew low and slow as the gunship covered me high and behind. The Red ship navigated from his high perch and the White ship poked and scratched around in the jungle treetops looking for sign of the enemy. It was an uneventful flight that suddenly turned lethal as such scouting missions often did.

I found a road; a one-lane rutted road heading southwest. It was littered with paper wrappers, empty food cans and other trash. Instantly the gunship and I were on the alert. I dropped lower over the roadway and slowed my airspeed to better see the details; my observer strained against his shoulder harness as he leaned far out of the helicopter to pick up the smallest sign. The gunship was prepared to launch 2.75 rockets, mini-gun and door guns against the enemy who most often tried to hide (until discovered) rather than shoot first.

A small wooden bridge over a ravine came into view as the road curved into a small valley with a low hilltop in the center of it. Trees were ahead to my left; to my right, elephant grass filled the valley floor all around. Everything was quiet.

At this point I was very low and very slow; about 10' off the ground and 30-40' from the road at 40 knots. Another curve in the road around a grove of low trees brought a spectacular sight into view - a NVA motor pool! The site was neatly laid out with split rail fencing and hard packed earth ground. Chicom trucks were nicely lined up ready for action; a small thatched roof structure with an unreadable sign over the door must have been the dispatcher's office. I was thunder struck! I had never seen anything like it!

I immediately took evasive action, turning violently away from the scene, speeding into the elephant grass as I climbed to stay above it. "Trucks!" I shouted into my radio to the gunship who had dropped lower once we entered the small valley; "Trucks! Lots of trucks!" I yelled! "I'll get a grid. Put some 275 on 'em" I said, as my "Oscar" feverishly tried to get us located on our map.

A moment later the elephant grass came alive with small arms automatic weapons fire - it was everywhere!

I dropped down into the grass and threw the nose forward as I pulled maximum pitch to get my fastest speed. The ground fire never slowed! "I'm taking fire!" I screamed into the radio to the gunship. "I'm coming" replied the Red ship - then - "I'm taking fire too!"

We were both down on the deck, in the grass, heading at max airspeed toward the low hilltop in the middle of the valley, the gunship fast behind me. Both of us had our door gunners firing blindly into the grass in a vain attempt to stop the ground fire - it didn't work! Once they knew they were discovered they were intent on downing the two American helicopters.

As we rounded the hill, the firing stopped as suddenly as it started. "What the shit was that?" I squeaked into the mouthpiece, still traveling at full speed, about 100 knots on the deck. That was all I had time for before the shooting started again! The grass was alive with rifle fire! My rotor blade was cutting grass in front of my little bubble cockpit; bits of grass, shrapnel, enemy lead, our shell casings and whatever else had been loose in the cockpit seemed to fill the air - there was debris all over! My Oscar was wildly and continuously wiping the '60 all over the grass trying to get the enemy's heads down.

We continued forward; to try to climb up the valley walls out of range would have been sheer suicide for we would have come under fire from the entire valley floor simultaneously as we gained altitude. The normally faster gunship vainly tried to out run us in getting out of the valley! No way! I swear I was punching a hole in the roof of the cockpit bubble with the collective as I pushed the cyclic through the front of the bubble!

Then it stopped.

Both ships climbed for altitude as we continued out of the valley. "Did you get those trucks?" I asked of the lagging-behind gunship. "No" he replied. "We only put some door gun on them."

"Shit!" I exclaimed. "We can go back" he said half-heartedly. There followed some brief conversation punctuated with a few surprising expletives before we turned around for another past at those f**king trucks. As we crossed that little bridge, this time at about 1000', I saw smoke begin to pour out of the muzzles of the gunship's door guns as the gunners returned renewed ground fire from below.

Just as if it had been choreographed for "Dancing with the Stars" both ships wheeled around in unison and we headed for the mountains. Enough is enough!

Back at our Operations tent we discovered we had been on the Laotian border immediately northwest of the A Shau Valley in a smaller, feeder stockpile of enemy transportation and supplies. Command called in airstrikes on our discovery.