11 June 1968, HMM-262, Quang Tri, VN:
I’d been in country about three weeks when I was scheduled for my 1st “1R9”, Recon Insert & Extract mission. I thought that I’d already seen a lot. On my 1st day of combat flying we’d moved a battalion of grunts from Khe Sahn to the Laotian Salient area. Our section leader, Rich “The Ugly American” Herberg, had been shot down and we’d picked up the crew. Nine US aircraft had been lost in Northern I Corps that day. I remember thinking that I only had 389 more days to go. By this time I knew the slapping sound of rounds going through the thin fuselage skin of the H-46 and the “Whoomp” of mortar rounds in the landing zone. One of the veteran HAC’s had calmly demonstrated how to drop external loads in the Khe Sahn LSA when NVA artillery rounds from Co Roc were impacting in the LSA every 11 seconds. I’d returned from a day of flying MedEvac and deplaned on a cabin deck slick with the blood of dead and wounded Marines. I was a fully functioning copilot. That is, I could raise and lower the ramp and the FM antennae at the appropriate times. But, I was still a FNG about to embark on my 1st “1R9”.
My HAC and the section leader was Clay “Snoopy” Snear. Snoopy was one of the quiet, confident veteran HAC’s of whom I was in total awe. These guys had flown through the siege of Khe Sahn and the Tet Offensive. Our VMO-6 Huey gunship escort section was led by Cal Croom. Cal had the reputation of being a great shot and was totally fearless. After briefing in the line shack, we took off and repositioned at the 3d Recon pad on the west side of Quang Tri Combat Base. The HAC’s walked to the Recon Ops hootch for the mission briefs. The copilots and crews stayed with the aircraft. It was my 1st introduction to the Recon Marines. They looked quite different from the regular grunts who I had previously hauled. They gathered in their four man teams. Each seemed to have a different camouflaged uniform. None wore a helmet or a flak jacket. They carried a variety of weapons rather than all carrying M-16’s. All had their faces completely painted with camouflage paint. They were quiet and confident.
When the HAC’s returned, we launched from the Recon pad and flew west to LZ Stud (later Vandergrift Combat Base). There we dropped the recon teams to be insert off on the runway and proceeded to extract a couple of teams. The first extract was northwest of the Razorback. The pick-up zone wasn’t a zone at all, but a bomb crater on the side of an elephant grass covered mountain. Snoopy hovered with the nose to the valley and the ramp to the edge of the bomb crater while the crew chief made sure that the aft rotors stayed clear of the elephant grass rising with slope behind us. Great flying and it makes a great picture. We returned to LZ Stud and picked up our first Recon team for insertion.
The procedure for a recon insert at that time was to make three landings in proximity to each other and the team would deplane at the pre-selected zone. The logic was that the NVA would see the H-46 land in three different spots and would not know which zone the recon team had been left in. There were no zone prep fires.
With the team aboard, we departed to the north. North and west of the Razorback we feigned two inserts. We then flew around the north end of the Razorback and did a descending right turn down the east side of that rocky ridge line. Our drop zone was a low elephant grass covered knoll. To the west rose the Razorback. To the east was the wide, shallow Cam Lo River that flowed north to south toward the Rock Pile. Just beyond the river a low ridge ran north to south. This low ridge line was at the foot of Mutter’s Ridge and Dong Ma Mountain. Snoopy flew in fast to a low flare, “Hover Aft”, and smoothly landed the Phrog in the waist high grass. The ramp went down, the Recon team quickly disappeared into the grass, “Ramp Clear” and Snoopy departed straight ahead as the ramp came up. Piece of cake, this recon stuff wasn’t as bad as I had feared. We passed over the fire base near the base of the Rock Pile on our way back to LZ Stud to pick up the next team to be inserted. Cal and the gunships flew ahead to scout out the next insertion zones.
Suddenly the radio came alive telling us that the team that we’d just dropped off was under heavy enemy fire and needed an emergency extract. Snoopy immediately did a 180, back toward the team. We didn’t climb. We didn’t wait for the gunships. We flew low down the east face of the Razorback. Another 180 and we swooped in low and fast and landed where we’d dropped the team. Ramp down. To my left just across the shallow river along the top of the ridge line I could see a dozen or more twinkling muzzle flashes. By now the Cal and the gunships were hammering the NVA. Suddenly at the edge of our forward rotor plane, at our 10 o’clock position, two explosions kicked up grass and dirt. I called out “Mortars” on the ICS. Snoopy asked where the team was and the crew chief said that they were pinned down by the NVA fire about 25 yards behind the aircraft and attempting to belly crawl to the ramp. We sat, maybe a minute or two, but it seemed like forever. I kept expecting to hear the rounds slapping into the aircraft or the next salvo of mortars to drop in; but, the bad guys kept shooting at the Recon team. When the team finally crawled aboard, we again departed straight ahead. The Recon guys were “into the moment” and firing out of the port side windows as we departed.
Within a minute or so we landed at LZ Stud and the Recon team disembarked for their debriefing. They gather beside the aircraft to celebrate being alive. You know the saying, “There’s no more exhilarating feeling than be shot at and missed.” One young black Recon team member trotted in front of the aircraft. His was tall and lean. His eyes were wide open and white. A big smile covered his face. His cover was missing, but he still had on a black sweat rag. He snapped to attention and raised a black-gloved fist in the black power salute. In those days, I wasn’t too fond of that salute; but, in this case I knew it was an honor. He was thanking us for saving his ass. He then doubled over and puked. Adrenaline is powerful stuff.
We then picked up our next team for insert and were preparing to fly south when we heard that while reconnoitering our next insertion zone, Cal had had the cyclic shot out of his hand. His Huey was out of commission and there wasn’t another gunship available so the rest of the mission was cancelled.
I later found out that the mortars that I’d called in the LZ were Cal Croom’s 2.75 rockets impacting. He’d seen NVA on our side of the river attempting to flank the team (and our H-46). Not every gunship pilot would have taken a shot that close. Fewer could have made it. Thank God for Cal’s eye. I was later informed that gunships had killed more than 30 NVA to protect us and the recon team. No wonder the firing slacked off.
I’m still amazed at how cool and calm Snoopy, the crew chief and the gunners were through the entire extract and after. No hesitation, little talk, all action. Just another day at the office for a Chatterbox crew.
If it had been later in my tour after I understood how such things were done, I’d have written Snoopy up for a DFC. He certainly deserved one. But Snoopy and the other veteran heroes in HMM-262 didn’t fly for medals. In fact they seemed to hold the medals in a bit of distain. They flew for their fellow Marines, the grunts, the mud-Marines and I never saw them let a fellow Marine down.
Semper Fi and thanks for all that you taught me.
Bill “Booby” Hatch