Alfred DeMailo Charlie Trooper – The Beginning of TET 1968

Posted on March 6, 2011

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  I woke at first light on the morning of January 31, 1968 at Landing Zone (LZ) Evans. I was tired and dirty from a night spent in a shallow fox hole with my friend and wingman Lynn Freeman who was affectionately known as “The Chief”. What little sleep we got was interrupted by two “Mox Nix” (not important) mortar attacks. Which is to say they were not zeroed in on our immediate position, but they were too close to ignore. I was sitting in the dirt on the edge of my fighting hole eating a scrounged      C-ration breakfast when Bill Woods came over and informed me that my fire team was first up that morning and that I was to report to Flight Operations for a briefing.

My mission was to fly to Phu Bi as soon as the fog lifted and rendezvous with a CH-54 flying crane   ( a helicopter that looks lie a large grasshopper). The Sky Crane was to pick up a bulldozer and sling load it back to LZ Evans where it would be put into service cutting an airstrip.

Since CH-54’s usually flew high and unescorted, the mission seemed odd to me, so I questioned the Operations Officer about it. I was told that due to the weather conditions, low ceilings and visibility, the Crane would have to fly low and slow making it a tempting target for enemy gunners. “Speaking of enemy gunners”, he added “there were reports of sporadic gunfire around Hue City last night. Probably only ARVN (Army of the Republic of South Vietnam) soldiers celebrating TET (Vietnamese New Years) but you never know”. I made a mental note of the warning since our route of flight would take us right over the Imperial City of Hue.

I briefed the other three pilots who would accompany me on this mission and we settled in to wait for the weather to break. Our mood was relaxed since we had been working this AO (Area of Operation) for the past two weeks with very limited enemy contact. Within the hour we had a 300 foot ceiling and a little better than a ¼ mile of visibility. Not the best of conditions, but enough to go, so I gave the order to launch.

Our fire team consisted of two UH-1C model helicopter gunships     crewed by two pilots, a Crew Chief and a Door Gunner in each aircraft. Each gunship carried fourteen 2.75 inch folding fin aerial rockets fired by either of the two pilots and two 30 caliber “mini guns” operated through a remote sighting device by the pilot in the left seat. The Crew Chief and the Door Gunner each manned a hand-held M-60 machine gun through the open cargo bay doors on each side of the ships. We were the first two helicopters to take off from LZ Evans that morning.

LZ Evans was located on the coastal plain surrounded by flat terrain, so we swept out at low-level down Highway One with our skids skimming over the tops of the palm trees en route to Phu Bi. The trip down Highway One was uneventful. Visibility improved slightly, however, the low ceiling still stretched out in front of us. We avoided flying directly over the highway for security reasons. Even though it was a little more than an improved dirt road, following it’s course would give the bad guys a reference point from which to track us with their fire. If anyone of our crews noticed the lack of the usual civilian activity along the road, in the rice paddies or in the villages along our route of flight that morning no one commented on it.

After about fifteen minutes of flight time the tree line on the out skirts of Hue City began to take shape through the dissipating fog at our twelve o’clock. We crossed a large rice paddy and dike complex then hit the tree line at about 100 feet above the ground and at a speed of less than 100 miles per hour. Just as we passed the tree line the ground erupted in a hail of automatic weapons fire. I glanced over my shoulder through the open window of my aircraft and saw the ground dotted with North Vietnamese Soldiers shooting at my helicopter as civilians stood by watching with their characteristic lack of concern. In the next instant my attention was wrenched back into the cockpit by the voice of my Door Gunner yelling through the intercom system that he was hit. As if to confirm his words, long spurts of blood pumped forward from his seat in the rear and swirled through the cockpit on the wind from the open doors. To his great credit he continued to lay down protective fire, never missing a beat with his machine gun. The Crew Chief picked up the fire with his M-60 out the left door as I broke hard in his direction calling for “Smiling Tiger 23” (the call sign of the “Chief”) to cover my retreat. The “Chief” as usual was in correct position at my right rear to lay in covering fire underneath my aircraft to buy me the few precious seconds I needed to get out of the harm’s way.

I headed back towards the road thinking that if I were going to go in I would prefer a forced landing rather than into the trees. A quick check of the instruments reassured me that my aircraft was still intact. We were not taking fire anymore so I slowed the ship back to 40 knots while the Crew Chief closed the cargo doors. This stopped the blood from swirling through the cockpit and allowed the opportunity to bandage the gunner’s leg wound. Everyone’s adrenalin was up.

Within a few minutes the Crew Chief had applied a pressure bandage to the wound and the bleeding was under control. We were orbiting over Highway One and some rice paddies at 100 feet less than a mile from where we had taken the ground fire. Our gunship was fully loaded and I couldn’t see leaving the area without a little “Payback”. In my toughest 21-year-old voice I asked my wounded gunner if he felt up to a couple of hot passes on the guys who shot him. Without hesitation he said “Let’s do it”. I radioed back to “23” informing him of my intentions. The “Chief” acknowledged with a “roger” and assured me he would cover my breaks.

The Crew Chief and the door Gunner slid the cargo doors back and pinned them in the open position as I rolled over to the “break neck speed” of 75 Knots ( all the speed my overloaded C Model could muster) and headed for the tree line of Hue City. The first rocket that I punched off went wild because I over controlled in my excitement, but I quickly regained my composure and put the balance of my ordinance load on target. Meanwhile, the Crew Chief and the Door Gunner were getting some of their own blazing through the open doors with their M-60’s. After a couple of passes, our ammunition expended , we headed back to LZ Evans.

We retraced our course up Highway One with me in the lead and “23” covering my tail. By now the adrenalin dump was past and had been replaced by the inevitable jitters, which is like an adrenalin hangover. My heroic Door Gunner was beginning to show first signs of shock brought on by a loss of blood and needed more attention than we could give him. Time was on our side this day, however, since we were now only minutes from LZ Evans. I diverted to the medevac pad while the “Chief” landed at our company area to report on the hornet’s nest we ran into at Hue City.

That Hornets Nest erupted in every major urban area in the Republic of Vietnam that day and into the days that followed. By the time the evening news came on back in the States , it was already known as the TET Offensive. The capture of the Imperial City of Hue by the North Vietnamese Army was the high water mark of that offensive. During my three tours of  duty with the First Cavalry Division in the republic of Vietnam, I fought in many engagements with the enemy. Some were more intense than the one described here yet they are forgotten or ignored in a sordid history of an unpopular war. But the TET Offensive of 1968 changed the course of that war. Probably one of the most ironic campaigns in the history of warfare, it was both a smashing military victory and a  crushing political defeat and, as far as I know, I flew the first gunship into the Imperial City of Hue on the first day of the TET Offensive of 1968.

      

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Posted in: Al DeMailo