Prairie Fire Emergency Exfil – 18 Nov 69
THURSDAY, MARCH 30, 2006
One Prairie Fire emergency exfil that I vividly recall occurred on 18 Nov 1969. Jerry Kibby was my co-pilot two FE’s /door gunners were SSgt Jim Burns and SSgt Charlie Hill. The SOG team had come into contact with the NVA close to “The Trail” during the night. After a running battle, they were surrounded and under attack. Of the six team members (two Americans & four indigenous), one had been killed and two others were wounded. Unfortunately, the weather in the area was terrible; low clouds, poor visibility and severe turbulence. We launched ASAP from NKP with three CH-3s and four A-1 escorts. On arrival in the area, we made contact with the NAIL FAC who had a Heavy Hook (SOG) rider with him. I was pleased to discover that the NAIL was 1/Lt Hank Haden, an outstanding young FAC from NKP with whom I had worked other emergency exfils. Hank was below the overcast and, despite the fact the clouds were almost on the karst tops, was directing air strikes against the enemy. He advised us that the turbulence in the area was quite severe and that our planned approach route to the team was unusable due to the low clouds. The good news was that there was a small hole in the undercast that we could descend through.
The bad news was that the hole was over a known 23 mm NVA gun. Obviously, there was no choice and we went through the hole. Once the formation was below the cloud layer, following standard tactics the other two helicopters held clear (while keeping us in sight) as we followed the FAC into the team’s location. We spotted the team’s smoke on a steep ridge line that was covered with tall elephant grass. They were under small arms and automatic weapon fire and our escorting A-1s were delivering protective ordnance. The steep slope of the ridge prevented a landing so we hovered with the nose wheel on the ground and the main gear in the air over the precipice. The wind turbulence coming over the edge of the ridge was indeed severe and the CH-3 was bucking wildly as we hovered.
Despite the 30 years that have elapsed, I clearly recall my initial glimpse of the team as they came into the area of elephant grass blown flat by the rotor downwash. The first two team members were dragging their dead comrade by his boots. With the helicopter bucking like a rodeo bull, the team had difficulty getting the body on board and it seemed like an eternity before all were finally on board. The A-1s continued to lay down protective fire as we came safely off the ridge line.
After the exfil, we had the privilege of having a beer with the surviving
team members at the SOG Heavy Hook compound at NKP. At that time, I asked the Heavy Hook commander, Major Bill Shelton, why, since they were under fire, didn’t the team leave the body. He explained to me the importance to the Nungs/ Vietnamese of returning the body of the team member to his home village for a proper Buddhist funeral. That the SOG Special Forces members would go to that extent (recovering the body while under fire and managing to get it aboard a nearly out of control helicopter) to assure the loyalty and future support of their indigenous troops, made me respect them more than ever! Those guys were unbelievable! (Bob Arnau Pilot)
Yep! I remember the mission well …. I think I got my 5th DFC for this mission. I’ll have to check my records to be sure. What you sent me is Bob Arnau’s story from the pilots seat and here is Jerry Kibby’s side from the co-pilots seat. (Jim Burns FE)
If you don’t mind my “view from the other seat”, I would like to add a little to the below. The A-1s which were providing close air support for the mission were unable to work in their usual way, i.e., near vertical descent firing/dropping weapons followed by a near vertical climb-out and turn back for another near vertical pass at the target area. The combination of low clouds and high terrain forced them to stay under the clouds in order to be of use and they had to make long horizontal passes at the target area, during which they strafed with their 20 mm cannons for as much of the pass as they could. After passing the target area, they had to remain under the clouds with the ground still in sight and fly a horizontal loop back to the target area for another pass – and while they were doing this, they had to avoid the high terrain, each other and the two other CH-3s on the mission. The result of this was a lot less supporting fire on the target than would have been possible in different meteorological conditions. When the team came into sight (popped up out of the elephant grass, by my observation), they were (as you said, Bob) dragging the dead team member.
This was my first time as copilot in the “low bird”, and I was backing up Bob on the controls in a non-interfering way. He was having to fight the winds to try to keep the nose gear on the top of the peak, and I don’t think he noticed that the heavy head winds had resulted in the rotor blades being so low in front of the helicopter that they were almost at belt-level with the approaching team members. There was not time, as the team approached, pulling their dead mate, to tell Bob about the problem. I pulled back on the collective slightly, which caused two things (maybe three, if you count pissing off Bob to an extent), it raised the path of the rotor blades and it caused us to back-off slightly. But it also allowed the team to move under the blade path while it was higher than it had been initially. When we had the team on board, Bob turned us to face down-hill and we accelerated just above ground level down the hill as fast as we could go. As we went down, and prior to pulling into the clouds, we passed right over a manned anti-aircraft position – which did not have time to come to bear on our aircraft. I also recall a sudden sickening feeling as we ran down the hill – smoke in the aircraft. I recognized the source within a second or less as the smoke from our own machine guns.
Our FE’s were putting out all of the fire they could from our M-60s, and the shape of the CH-3 causes a reverse airflow, pulling air (and gun smoke)from the back up to the front and out the windows. I met one of the team members we pulled out that day at a bar-b-que at the NKP Heavy Hook detachment some time after this mission. He sat across from me while we ate and told the story of his last mission as a team lead, the one which made him decide he had had enough of that for a while. As he described the mission, I thought it sounded familiar and I asked some specifics that confirmed it was the mission which Bob described. That Special Forces NCO, once he knew I was part of the crew that got him and his team out, tried to give me anything and everything of value that he had – which in the situation of the day was mostly weapons.
I declined his offers, as we were all well provided with personal firearms. He did tell me something’s I had not known about the mission. One was that the wounded in their group were wounded by their own grenades, which they had to lay down in a short-long pattern to try to keep the enemy off of them. The other thing he told me that I did not know before was that our helicopter, as it sat there with the nose gear on the karst to pick them up, was actually on top of some of the NVA surrounding them. I sure hope he made it through the rest of the war. Anyway, these are some of my recollections about the day in addition to what you wrote already. Use them or don’t use them as you see fit. (Jerry Kibby C0-Pilot)
I remember well the difficult time Bob was having keeping the bird in a hover, fighting the winds coming across the ridge line. As Jerry says, the A-1’s were make the strafing passes along the top part of the ridge line and on one of the passes, I remember us backing off a bit and then getting back into a good ‘bucking’ hover where we could get the team and their dead on board. Just at the time we backed off, one of the A-1’s opened up on a strafing pass and at the time I thought Bob must have thought we were taking ground fire, I didn’t realize the reason we backed off was because Jerry was trying to keep the team from getting hit by the blades. I also never knew we were hovering on top of some of the NVA troops, until I got Jerry’s story.
Jim Burns FE.