On the morning of 4 January 1970, at approximately 0730 local time, Major Jack "Blades" Pipa gathered the pilots of three CH-46s and four AH-1G Cobras together in the HMM-364 ready room to brief a mission which involved inserting several Force Reconnaissance Teams into an area a "considerable distance" west of Chu Lai to gather valuable information on the location and movement of enemy forces. In fact the distance was so great that the first segment of this two part mission was to insert a radio relay team on a mountain top west of Chu Lai to insure adequate communication could be maintained with the two teams which were slated for the "considerable distance" insertion. About the same time two OV-10s were preparing to launch in support of this mission equipped with both rockets and smoke. All total nine aircraft were deemed necessary to successfully complete this multiple faceted reconnaissance mission.
The lead CH-46 crew, call sign of Swift 2-1, consisted
Major Jack Pipa, Flight Leader
1stLt. Bruce E. Jensen, copilot
Sgt. Terry D. McDade, crew chief
SgtMaj. R. R. Ebert, gunner
GySgt. J. D. Hummel, gunner
Rank? First? Jones, gunner
Swift 2-2 was manned by:
1stLt. David L. Cross, pilot
1stLt. David K. Schmitz, copilot
Cpl. Bruce I. Federer, crew chief
Cpl. John D. Crider, gunner
Sgt. Robert Duerschmidt, gunner
Cpl. Dave Hamel, gunner (Photo)
Swift 2-3 was manned by:
1stLt. Joseph W. Devlin, pilot
1stLt. Richard J. Bell, copilot (Photo)
Cpl. Donald R. Miller, crew chief
Rank?, First? Cravatt, gunner
Cpl. Eddie Riveria, gunner
GySgt. Ernie Lambright, gunner
The fight of four AH-1G Cobras was lead by:
Major Billy D. Womack whose call sign was "Scarface Five."
The enlisted crew members were busy preflighting the aircraft and the gunners were drawing their weapons and ammunition. It is appropriate here for your webmaster to add that both SgtMaj. Ebert and GySgt. Hummel were frequent members of the crew on missions which had the potential to be rather hazardous, rather than on less hazardous administrative flights simply to earn their "flight skins."
Maj. Pipa's briefing was fairly straight forward. The entire flight of eight helicopters would depart Marble Mountain for Chu Lai where they would shut down, refuel and hold another briefing with the reconnaissance teams "Arnica" and "Echo" who would be serving as the radio relay station atop Hill 1362 (4468 feet MSL) and teams "Potato Heap" and "Abe Lincoln" who would be inserted farther west. Swift 2-2 and Swift 2-3 would insert the radio relay teams on Hill 1362 and Swift 2-1 would act as their chase/rescue bird in the event one of the aircraft went down. Upon inserting teams Arnica and Echo the flight would return to Chu Lai for refueling and loading of teams Potato Heap and Abe Lincoln.
The flight arrived at Chu Lai, refueled, conducted another briefing with the teams and departed at approximately 1037 local time heading out the 247o radial of Channel 50, the Chu Lai TACAN. Enroute the flight found the weather to be quite marginal and upon arriving in the vicinity of Hill 1362 found it obscured in the cloud layers. Maj. Womack (Scarface Five) anchored his other three Cobras and the three CH-46s in an area where visual contact could be maintained and proceeded toward Hill 1362 (BS357962) in an attempt to find a VFR approach corridor to the landing zone. Scarface Five made several approaches to the zone and could momentarily see it from about 200 meters out but it would again become obscured by clouds. Maj. Womack and Maj. Pipa discussed the situation and agreed to have Lt. Devlin (Swift 2-3) join up on Scarface Five for a very slow air taxi approach to the zone. It was agreed that if either, or both of them, went IFR they would turn to a heading of 090 or 100 degrees and commence a climb to VFR conditions. Swift 2-3 followed Scarface Five on two aborted attempts into the zone but on the third try they both had visual contact at about 400 feet above the ground. Scarface Five prepped the zone with 2.75 rockets and two white phosphorus rockets for wind direction detection purposes. Swift 2-3 deposited his team, lifted in a turn to 090 degrees and climbed out of the zone to VFR conditions.
The same procedures were utilized to get 1stLt. Cross (Swift 2-2) and his radio relay team into the zone. The major difference was that Swift 2-2 had to abort three attempts before finding the zone on the fourth try, with only a 50 to 100 foot ceiling, where he placed his two main gear on the ground and hovered the nose of his aircraft over the precipice. He too applied the briefed departure procedures and climbed out IFR to a clear area east of Hill 1362. Swift 2-2 joined up with the other two CH-46s and the entire flight of seven headed back to Chu Lai for fuel and teams Potato Heap and Abe Lincoln.
Abe Lincoln was placed aboard Maj. Pipa's (Swift 2-1) aircraft, team Potato Heap aboard 1stLt. Cross' (Swift 2-2) and 1stLt. Devlin (Swift 2-3) became the rescue helicopter if one was needed. The flight departed Chu Lai on a north westerly heading toward Heip Duc and then turned south west toward the intended area for placing the teams in an area approximately thirty six miles west of Chu Lai where two separate general insert areas were to be utilized. The sky was still cloudy but the flight was maintaining a bit lower altitude than the 4468 MSL altitude required for the relay team insertion thus eliminating the weather problems encountered at Hill 1362.
Upon arriving in the general vicinity of Potato Heap's area of responsibility, Scarface Five conducted an aerial reconnaissance to locate a suitable landing zone. Scarface Five briefed Swift 2-2 about the zone he had selected (AS848967) and advised him that all four of the Cobras, two on either side of his transport helicopter, would set up race track patterns for suppressive fire and follow him into the zone. 1stLt. Cross made an uneventful approach, landed, discharged Potato Heap and remained in the zone a short while to insure radio contact was established with the team and all was well before leaving the zone. Communications were established and 1stLt. Cross was cleared to leave the zone. His departure was normal in all regards and no fire was taken. Within two minutes however Potato Head reported they were taking fire from the south. Then they reported they had killed a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier and were still taking sporadic fire from the south. Since their location was compromised they requested and immediate extraction. Back on Hill 1362, the teams Commanding Officer (Arnica Six) was monitoring the radio traffic between the Potato Heap and Scarface Five and approved their immediate extraction.
Scarface Five advised the team to move toward the northeast and take cover on the northeast slope of their insertion zone to allow his gun ships to lay down suppressive fire to their south and to give them more separation from the OV-10s which he was going to utilize to lay a smoke screen between the team and the NVA to provide some visual cover between the NVA and 1stLt. Cross as he returned to the zone for the extraction. Smoke having been deployed, 1stLt. Cross set up the approach to the zone (AS848967) with the Cobras in close proximity. Swift 2-2 took some fire going into the zone, retrieved Potato Heap and departed toward the northeast again receiving fire from the south. No significant damage was inflicted on the aircraft, it's crew or the Marines of the reconnaissance team.
The compromise of Potato Heap's location did not effect the location chosen for Abe Lincoln so the flight proceeded to another insertion area. Scarface Five chose the precise landing zone (AS935952), briefed Maj. Pipa and supplied the same four Cobra Gun ship cover into the zone. Abe Lincoln was off loaded, the normal period of remaining in the zone until radio contact assured him the team was secure and then Maj. Pipa lifted out without incident. The flight was now running low on fuel and a return to Chu Lai was in order as soon as the formation of seven rendezvoused. They didn't get far, Abe Lincoln came up on the net and advised they could hear voices to the south and movement to the east.
Considering the situation, Scarface Five sent the three CH-46s and three of the Cobras to Chu Lai for refueling. Scarface Five and the two OV-10s remained in the vicinity, but offset from Abe Lincoln's actual position to provide suppressive fire if their exact location was determined by the enemy and they too were ordered out by Arnica Six who was still monitoring the net from Hill 1362.
When The flight returned from refueling they were briefed that a platoon size element of NVA was moving towards Abe Lincoln from the northeast and Arnica Six had authorized their extraction as well. It was then that Scarface Five and his gun ships returned to Abe Lincoln's position made a positive identification of their exact location and deployed his gun ships to cover, by fire, Maj. Pipa as he returned to the zone (AS935952) to extract Abe Lincoln.
The object of the reconnaissance mission to gather
valuable information on the location and movement of enemy forces was a
tremendous success. The Purple Foxes landed their teams Abe Lincoln
and Potato Heap in the enemy's back yard! As to the air crews, it
was another normal day of displaying what training and commitment to supporting
the Grunt was all about even though they were hampered by factors of
weather, the enemy and great distances from friendly forces.
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