(Or How Technology Failed To Change The Face Of Warfare)
By Raymond Caryl, Catkiller 32/42
January 30, 1968 and the NVA decided to celebrate the Chinese New Year in a very special way—by trying to overrun most of the US bases in I–Corps. Around midnight when the bullets started flying, I had elected to get in a Bird Dog and take to the air rather than take my chances huddled in a bunker hoping someone didn't decide to toss in a satchel charge just to stir things up. My Marine AO and I had already flown two flights of around three and a half hours each and were into our third iteration of looking for stuff to shoot at.
ARVN Sector Headquarters, located several miles south of Marble Mountain at Hoi An, had been hit pretty hard by a large force of VC/NVA. The river that emptied into the South China Sea just to the east of Hoi An had several islands within easy mortar range of Sector Headquarters. I had contacted them looking for targets and they told me to suppress the mortar fire coming from one of those islands. About then, Da Nang Direct Air Support Center (DASC) called and said he had an AC–47 “Spooky” looking for work and could we oblige him? Timing IS everything.
I came up on the UHF freq assigned to us by the DASC and checked in with Spooky. He said he had lots of bullets and a fair amount of loiter time left, so could we find him a target or two? I put my last Willie Pete in the middle of the island, roughly the size of three football fields that had been identified as the probable VC/NVA mortar site. With that, Spooky went to work.
I'd watched a Spooky work late the night of September 6, 1967 in the Que Son Valley. What a spectacular show THAT was; red tracers flowing down from the circling Spooky like water from a fire hose and an enormous volume of green tracers going back up from an NVA .51 caliber machine gun. I had yet to observe one working in daylight though, so I was eager to see what he could do. What I witnessed was just as impressive during the day as it was at night. From my vantage point tracers weren't visible in the daylight, but I did get to watch an “Airborne Weedeater” at work. Trees, even palm trees, brush—everything that had been sticking up on that island was now laying down in every imaginable direction. It took a twenty-five year old aircraft armed with several 7.62 caliber mini-guns less than twenty minutes to completely destroy every living thing on that island—and, oh, Sector stopped complaining about incoming mortar rounds.
Next came the interesting part:
Seemingly from out of nowhere thundered a US Army CH–47 Chinook helicopter. Now I knew what a CH–47 was, I'd seen them at Ft. Rucker, and I knew the difference between an Army CH-47 and a Marine CH–46—the CH–47 is bigger—but I had been in Vietnam since July and this was the first Chinook I'd seen anywhere in I–Corps. I had no idea where he was from or what I was going to do with him, but the DASC told me that I had a “Go–Go Niner inbound” and “could I use him?” The DASC hooked us both up on the same UHF freq. and what happened next went sort of like this:
“CATKILLER, THIS IS GO–GO NINER,” boomed the supremely confident voice over the UHF radio.
“Go-Go Niner, this is CatKiller 32, do you have any ordinance?”
“YOU BET WE DO CATKILLER. WE HAVE FIFTY CALIBER MACHINE GUNS AND TWO POINT SEVEN FIVE H–E ROCKETS,” came the reply.
About now, I'm thinking, “WOW, THIS guy has some really bitchin' stuff. I'd best get him a really good target.” I'd heard about some CH–47s that had been converted to gunships and were being evaluated in Viet Nam, but I had never expected to actually see one in action. Rumor had it that some kid had come up with the idea of hanging guns and rockets on Chinooks, putting armor plate over their fuel tanks, and loading them up with LOTS of bullets so they could remain on station for a long time. Apparently the Army liked the idea and decided to try it out on a half dozen or so CH–47s. With a nod to the current fad of Go–Go dancers, they were given the call sign “Guns a Go–Go”. This was going to be FUN.
“Go-Go Niner, CatKiller 32, stand by and I'll find something for you.”
I circled around Hoi An looking for a suitable target for Go–Go Niner to obliterate and on the east side of town my AO, with eyes still like a hawk after flying all night, keyed the intercom and said,
“Got us a target right down there. Some Gomers crawling toward town in that trench line.”
Sure enough, there they were. Ten little men dressed in pale green shorts and shirts carrying AK-47s, trying real hard not to be noticed.
“Go–Go Niner, CatKiller 32, got a target for you over here on the east side of town. Looks like about ten NVA in an east–west trench line. They have AK–47s, so you can expect some ground fire if you get too close. I don't have anything left to mark it for you, but if you'll fly over here, I'll make a low pass and rock my wings when I'm right over them.”
We maneuvered around until Go–Go Niner said he was in position to watch my low pass, and down I went. As far as I know, the NVA didn't fire at me—at least I didn't take any hits—so I climbed back up to 1000ft. and set up an orbit to watch the show. What I witnessed was a comedy—a comedy of errors. Go-Go Niner trundled off to the south a ways over the river, climbing and bleeding off airspeed as he went. Then, at the apex of his climb, he turned 180 degrees (sort of rotating about the vertical axis of his machine), pointed the nose downhill toward the target and announced:
“GO–GO NINER'S IN HOT!”
“You're cleared in hot Go-Go,” I transmitted, and then we waited—and waited–nothing. No rockets, no explosions, nothing but a big, lumbering helicopter descending toward our target at a blistering 100 or so knots.
“GO–GO NINER IS BREAKING OFF THE RUN. We've got a minor problem. We'll make another run.”
“OK, Go–Go, you will still be cleared hot. Did you take any ground fire?” I asked concerned that maybe the guys in the trench had somehow shot up his weapons system.
“This is Go–Go Niner. No, no ground fire. Just some switches that weren't set correctly.” came the response—not quite so confident now.
And that's how it went. Go–Go Niner made another climb and turn over the river and another THUNDERING descent toward the target. I could almost feel the determination to obliterate the target emanating from the great, flapping beast. But obliteration was not to be. This time rockets did leave the aircraft, but not screaming from their tubes belching flame and certain death. BOTH rocket PODS departed the aircraft with their unfired rockets still inside the tubes!
“Go–Go Niner off target—RTB.” said the shattered voice over the UHF.
My AO and I stopped laughing long enough to give him a “Zero over Zero” BDA and wish him a safe flight home. We were running low on fuel by now and since we had no more WP rockets and the DASC had run out of aircraft to give us, we decided to call it a day and go back to Marble Mountain. We circled the NVA in the trench one more time and I honestly believe they were sitting there laughing—at their good fortune, no doubt, thankful that somebody had a bad case of “switch-itis” and technology had once again failed to reign supreme.
Ray Caryl, CatKiller 32/42