by David Hollar, Vietnam War Veteran
Troops in Vietnam got around by foot, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. The helicopter is the mode I remember most vividly, and it was used most of the time. If we were going into an area, we would be heading for a Landing Zone (LZ). This was called an “insertion.” Choppers were our taxi. If we were being picked up from a field in the jungle, we would be taken out of a Pickup Zone (PZ). It was called an “extraction.” When we were being inserted into an LZ, we would be participating in an “air assault.” An assault by helicopters was called an “Eagle Flight.”
A well-executed air assault or extraction was a work of art. Proper execution of both was of such importance that on January 9, 1970, the battalion commander issued a nine-page “Letter of Instruction, Air Assaults.” It read, “This letter has been compiled after a study of 75 air assaults conducted by the 1st Bn, 2nd Inf, during August-December 1969. These procedures standardize techniques between air mission commanders, battalion operations officers, and battalion and company commanders. They are detailed at battalion level, yet are general at company level to provide optimal uniformity while allowing maximum initiative by ground commanders.”
How we moved from point A to point B
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(This is what it was like)
Often, we would be extracted from the airstrip at Dau Tieng for a combat air assault. Trucks would bring us out to the airstrip from our company area. If the helicopters were not already at the airstrip, we would wait for them in the hot sun (we went out on UH-1 choppers, which were called Huey’s). Six of us would board one Huey, and the rest of the platoon would get on one of the other four ships. The five ships were referred to as a “lift,” and one would deliver a platoon to the LZ, thus requiring three lifts to transport a company. The ships were in a formation of three on one side and two on the other. Usually, the first lift would be waiting on the tarmac of the Dau Tieng airstrip for some time. It was probably 10 or 15 minutes but seemed like hours to us.
It was stressful because we never knew whether we would be going into a hot LZ. I cannot explain the feeling as we approached the ground and the machine guns on the ship were blasting away. Many thoughts ran through my mind. I would glance at the other men on the chopper and wonder what they were thinking. The noise of the engine and rotor blades did not make it conducive for conversation, so we were alone with our thoughts as the blades spun overhead. Once the first lift reached the LZ, they would return to the airstrip to pick up another lift until the entire company was inserted into the LZ.
The first lift would see the LZ being “prepped” since it would be at an altitude of about 3,000 feet. Prepped meant howitzer artillery pieces would fire 105 mm artillery shells into and around the LZ to destroy potential enemy threats. In artillery terms, this was a Time on Target (TOT) tactic, “…a surprise tactic for devastating a particular target area almost instantaneously. Suspected ‘hot’ LZs were often prepared with a TOT mission while the assault forces hovered or circled overhead at altitude. Troops were then inserted into the ‘sanitized’ LZ before the smoke cleared.” Clearly, a TOT mission was an effective tactic.
TOT missions involved timing the firing of multiple batteries so that all fire on the exact location, with the firing times
, adjusted to cause the rounds to all impact simultaneously. A typical TOT might involve four batteries (24 guns) of different caliberssome firing shells fused for ground bursts, some for airbursts. The effect is that a particular jungle clearing might be quiet and peaceful one second and be enveloped and saturated with explosions in the air and on the ground in the next second. Bombardment may cease after the initial volley or be maintained in Fire for Effect mode, creating a sustained area saturated with detonations.
The concept of “a particular jungle clearing might be quiet and peaceful one second and a barrage of explosions the next” was well presented in the film We Were Soldiers when Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s battalion is inserted into the Ia Drang Valley in mid-November 1965. The camera shows tranquil shots in an open area, and then it turns to chaos instantly. They could have improved the effect by including the eerie whistling sounds of the 105 rounds coming into the area. We would hear that distinct sound when we called for artillery, and the location of the FSB was such that the shots came nearly overhead or to the left or right of us. Artillery did not fire rounds directly over a friendly unit because of the possibility of short rounds, which was when a round fell short of the target. If that happened, we would be in the line of fire.
From an altitude of about 3,000 feet, we could see the rounds exploding on the ground. This bombardment would continue for 12 minutes. The shells had a bursting radius of 150 to 200 feet, and the LZ was saturated with a barrage of chunks of hot metal speeding through the air. On one of the tapes, I said the explosions were “… a good sight to see that stuff coming in because you knew it would clear out (kill) anyone in the area.”
While the LZ was being prepped, two Cobra helicopter gunships would be flying in the area, waiting for the moment they would perform their part in the assault. After the artillery prep was completed, the operations officer for the air assault gave the “go signal” for the two gunships to make their passes. One on each side of the LZ would swoop in with his armaments firing. They had mini-guns firing 3,000 rounds per minute, each with 10 2.75-inch rockets. They made two passes unleashing their deadly ordinance. Thirty seconds to one minute before the first lift landed, the gunships made a final pass buzzing over the area, firing their mini-guns and rockets to destroy any remaining aggressors.
As the first lift came into the LZ, the door gunner on the chopper would fire his machine gun into the wood line, and anywhere he suspected trouble. On one insertion, I recall the pilot signaled the gunner behind him (and in front of me) to direct his fire more to the front of the chopper. He immediately swung his machine gun from firing to the side of the ship to the front. The pilot seemed pleased to see the tracers going into the wood line to the front of the ship. The stream of tracers looked like a red waterfall shooting into the jungle growth. I wondered what the pilot saw and was more uneasy about the mission than usual.
The ships often did not always completely touch down on the LZ. They would hover two feet above the ground, and the grunts would jump off. Immediately after the last soldier was off, the ships would rise quickly into the sky as they arced to the right or left out of the line of fire of any enemy soldiers. We would promptly rush to the wood line so we would not be as vulnerable in the open field. I had told the platoon sergeant and squad leaders where each should take the men so everyone knew where to go upon their boots touching the ground. It was important for everyone to go to the right place and to do it fast since one could never be sure if Charlie might still be there.
The Officer in Charge of the landing of the first lift was to report to the battalion and company commander immediately, either “Lima Zulu Hot” or “Lima Zulu Cold.” Hot meant the enemy was firing at you, and cold meant that there were not there. He would also “pop” a smoke grenade to mark the other lifts’ spot to aim for when they landed.
If I was not on the first ship, I could hear the officer on the first ship report on the radio whether the LZ was hot or cold. We were joyful when we heard “Lima Zulu Cold.” Captain Wilson was always on the first and last ship out. He had been a platoon leader earlier and knew how stressful it was for the officer who hit a “hot” LZ. He wanted to lessen the pressure on the platoon leaders. I do not recall whether my subsequent company commanders followed that policy.
I remember once when I was on the first lift, so I would report to the S-3 whether the LZ was cold or hot. The LZ was cold, and I went to pop the smoke for the next lift. I was nervous, and somehow, I got the smoke grenade in the wrong position, and when I pulled the pin, the smoke exhaust end was pointed toward my hand instead of away from it. I got a nasty burn from that mistake.
One of my greatest fears was to hit a hot LZ because we would be exposed and vulnerable in the open field. I do not recall that we did, and none of my letters or tapes refers to landing in a hot LZ.
The ordeal of a combat air assault insertion was an elating and intensely frightening experience. I never got used to them, and I participated in many. Air assaults and extractions were complex activities requiring coordination, planning, checking and rechecking, and supervision. In ways, it was amazing that anyone could pull them off.
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