Bear On a Rope.
Bob Harrington was nick-named Bear. We graduated together and his original WO serial number was one behind mine. He was a barrel-chested burly guy with a New York accent and a great sense of humor. He eventually came over to fly guns and joined the Heaviest Light Gun Team in Vietnam. While he was flying slicks however, I got to witness first-hand his courage and skill.
We were working out of Ban Me Thout. One of our jobs was to provide gun cover while a patrol was dropped off just before dark. We tagged along behind the slick as it did several false insertions, and watched the troops disembark and run for the trees at one of the LZs. After successfully getting the grunts on the ground, we all headed back to Ban Me Thout for some chow. We got hot gas and bullets before we shut down for the night, and the plan was to eat and then come back out to finish getting the aircraft ready for the next day. Like plans often do, this one went down the tubes. Just as we were sitting down to eat, someone came running in from Ops and announced a TAC E. The patrol we had just dropped off had gotten themselves surrounded and was calling for help!
By this time it was dark. Vietnam kinda dark. Like the inside of a cow! I believe Cpt. Jim Scott was the lead and I flew wing with Joe Baggett on the left seat. We kept our position lights on dim in a loose formation out to the general location of the drop, and lead got contact with the team. The radioman on the ground was hard to hear because he was whispering. He reported that the team was in a circle and he was in the middle with the radio. The VC were so close that they were tossing rocks toward their location trying to get a good fix on the team’s position. Lead asked if they had us in sight. They reported that they could hear us but they couldn’t see us so lead radioed to switch to bright. We stood out perfectly in the black sky.
Lead told the radioman to give him left/right instructions until he was directly overhead, then to yell “Bingo”. He talked us over his position and when he transmitted bingo, lead dropped his nose and fired a pair of rockets. That was a pretty cool idea I thought, but the radioman reported that the rockets were at least 100 yards too long. We made a left orbit and tried again, with the same result but, as we were returning for try three, Baggett pipes-up and says; “Hey. I can see white smoke where the rockets exploded.” I looked out his window but couldn’t see a damn thing. I told him he was crazy, but he insisted he could see the smoke and could adjust his minigun fire from it. I reported it to lead who pulled off to the side to give us a shot. As we rolled in, I still couldn’t see a thing, but Joe swore he had the smoke in sight and told me to aim my rockets where he put the tracers.
Firing miniguns at night is really 4th of July to the max. The entire cockpit was lit-up and it was just a little tough trying to concentrate on the rocket sight. I let Joe put a three second burst on the target to see if anyone complained, but the radio remained silent. When he opened up the second time I put the pipper on his tracers and let off a pair of rockets. Just as I watched them depart, I heard the radioman screaming, “CEASE FIRE, CEASE FIRE!” As he yelled out the second “cease fire” I could hear the rockets I had just launched, coming in on his position.
There’s nothing worse in the entire world than to fire on your own troops. Fortunately, we only had a few seconds to worry about it before the radio man was back on yelling, “That was great! That was great! I can hear them scrambling to get away. You plastered ‘em.” I still couldn’t see any smoke so I told lead we would be satisfied with that and we didn’t make any more firing passes.
About that time Bear and a buddy showed-up to make the extraction. The place where these guys were holed-up was too small to land in so they decided to pull them out on a Maguire rig. This meant that Bear had to hover over the spot, lit up light Manhattan Island, while six guys hooked themselves up to a rope. What we had done was crazy, but this was flat out nuts! I thought it would be better to get another gun team out to replace us and keep someone overhead all night, then find some reasonable place to land in the morning. The patrol didn’t like that. They wanted out, even if it meant dangling on the end of a rope, so Bear went in to get them.
He must have been hovering down there in the trees for at least 10 minutes while they got the rope down to the troops, and everyone got hooked up. It was so dark, you could reach out and feel it and he had to have his landing light and search light both on so he could detect any drift. His tail was in between two trees so he couldn’t go anywhere if someone started shooting. He sat there, motionless, on that black velvet background, a perfect target. All they would have had to do was point their AK toward the lights and pull the trigger, and that would have been the end of that.
Finally, a garbled call came from the radioman that they were ready, and Bear carefully lifted his aircraft out of its precarious perch. We fell in behind and followed him to a nearby airstrip so all the passengers could get inside instead of riding outside. After we shutdown, a great celebration erupted out there on that deserted strip. Everyone was whooping and hollering, and slapping each other on the back, really charged to be alive. I located the radioman and just had to ask him what really happened when we rolled in with the miniguns. He confirmed that the first two passes were way long and ineffective, but on the third try he was looking at the helicopter lights coming towards him when all of a sudden, all the tracers in the world were coming his way. They started hitting about 50 yards in front of their position and as Joe walked them towards their little circle, he was too scared to talk. He said they came right up to their perimeter, then jogged slightly to the right, and went down that side of the perimeter.
He could hear screams from enemy troops being hit, and when he looked back at the helicopter, another stream of tracers was coming at them. Just as he yelled cease fire, he saw my two rockets zeroing in on his nose. He hit the dirt and said they passed right overhead and landed about 20 meters behind them. That had been enough for the VC. They broke and ran. He couldn’t believe we could lay down such accurate fire at night. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.