What was it like to go on a helicopter combat assault with the 1st Air Cav Division during the Vietnam War? As a platoon leader with A Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cav, I went on more than 60 “charlie alphas” during my tour from 1968-69. Sometimes we made two assaults per day. This photograph gives the platoon leader’s view of what an assault looks like through the cockpit window. When it was my platoon’s turn to lead the assault I always rode in the first bird and that was a much different view.
The North Vietnamese Army was notorious for being able to walk down the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and Cambodia and infiltrate into South Vietnam. They moved down the trail in small units and kept well hidden in dense jungle so that the Americans could not drop bombs on them. Then they would infiltrate into the northern and central areas of South Vietnam again concealed by dense jungle. When the situation was just right for attacking an American or ARVN unit, they would mass their forces and coordinate a carefully planned strike, usually at night, designed to cause the greatest damage and casualties in the shortest time. Breaking off the attack after accomplishing their objectives, the NVA were masters of disappearing back into the jungle and across the border into Laos or Cambodia where American and ARVN troops were not permitted to follow.
The concept behind the Cav’s strategy of a helicopter combat assault was that once an enemy force was spotted, a quick reaction force (QRF) consisting of a reinforced platoon of about 35 men would be stationed on a helicopter pad and ready to launch within 30 minutes notice. The objective of the attack was to assault as close as possible to the enemy force and engage them in a firefight. An entire company of 120 men would then be deployed within two hours’ notice to support the engaged platoon. If needed, an entire battalion of 300 plus soldiers could be ready to support the engagement with 12 hours.
All troops would be assaulted into various LZs on the battlefield by helicopter thereby ensuring that troops were fresh and ready to fight. With such tremendous helicopter support soldiers could carry lighter packs, more ammunition and water, and wounded could be medevaced rapidly to lifesaving battalion aid stations only minutes away.
Riding on a helicopter assault was an awesome experience, especially if you were in the first bird. The platoon leader of the QRF would often receive a short intelligence briefing minutes before the first helicopter was dispatched. He would then brief his platoon sergeant, squad leaders and men about what they could expect to find upon landing. The concern was always about landing on a “hot LZ” (one controlled by an enemy force), but the Cav had a strategy for insuring that did not happen.
After loading into the helicopters and taking off, the soldiers would enjoy a brief respite from the usual daytime temperatures of 110 to 115. This was a short-lived experience as the flight usually lasted only 20 to 30 minutes. The platoon leader would coordinate with the pilots during the flight to mark the LZ location on his map and obtain any new intelligence that the pilots had received during the flight.
Five to eight minutes before landing, the following actions would occur:
- Soldiers would test fire their weapons, firing 3-5 rounds out the helicopter door.
- Artillery prep would begin firing 25 to 30 rounds on the LZ and surrounding perimeter.
- Firing a white phosphorus round signaled the completion of the artillery barrage
- Two Cobra helicopters accompanying the first assault bird would zoom ahead and fire miniguns surrounding the perimeter. They saved their rockets in case they were needed after landing.
- As the first helicopter came in for a landing, the door gunners on either side of the bird would open up with machinegun fire into the surrounding LZ right up until the bird touched down.
- As soon as the first helicopter started to land, soldiers riding on the skids would jump off and run for cover to the sides of the perimeter.
- The platoon leader and his RTO would also jump off and determine if the LZ was hot (red) or cold (green). A call would be made to the Command and Control helicopter flying overhead to report the status.
- Appropriate color smoke would be popped.
- If the LZ was green, additional birds would be brought in for a landing.
- If the LZ was red and the men on the ground were taking fire, they would engage the enemy and fight with the resources available. (This consisted of nine men: one equipped with a machine gun, one with a M79 grenade launcher, and the rest with M16s.)
- If the LZ was red, the remaining members of the platoon would be diverted to an alternate LZ, land and then move to support the engaged soldiers.
Landing on a hot LZ was a frightening experience for the platoon leader and his men. Immediate support was called for from the Cobra helicopters flying overhead to fire rockets and miniguns in the direction from where enemy fire was being taken.
Occasionally landing on a hot LZ resulted in a crashed helicopter and severe casualties.
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