Troop A, 3d Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry
One Perspective...The Early Days (1966-1967)
(Author: Glynn Decoteau / Contributing Editors: Chuck Oualline and Bill Barber)
© Glynn Decoteau, 2003
Spur Rifles - 1967
SFC Billy Barber in center,
Cpt. Decoteau is looking at pictures
Courtesy of Bill Barber - CSM (Ret.)
Armor Branch had proponency for air cavalry/attack helicopters during those days, so Fort Knox became the home for at least two squadrons activated for Vietnam - 3/17 and 7/17. Many of the aviators that would eventually be assigned to the 3d Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry completed flight school in 1966. Many others were already veterans of Vietnam, and were going back for their second tour.
As one of the "Air Cav" troops, Troop A began to absorb personnel during this year and set up organizationally in an old WWII barracks area at Fort Knox, Kentucky. On arrival, some aviators went directly to the unit; others received orders to School Troops or various other assignments. One of the main problems during initial organization and start-up was that the units' aircraft were not available on post. Each Air Troop was authorized 27 helicopters, so there were a lot of Army Aviators walking around with no aircraft to fly. Department of the Army decided that pilots drawing flight pay (but not flying) had to do something constructive, so the decision was made to create a special Career Course (it was labeled "Associate Armor Officer Career Course"), and most of the newly arrived aviators were assigned to the class. In spite of the fact that it was a "Captain's" course, several Lieutenants were included on the roster. Among many notable classmates was a Captain Gary Luck, soon to be the Aerorifle Platoon Commander for Troop B (he was destined to become a 4-star general). Silver Spurs who had "stars" in their future included CPT Barrett (Scout Platoon), CPT Gillespie (Gun Platoon), WO Kenneally (Gun Platoon) and Timothy Wright (Gun Platoon?).
Following graduation of the AAOCC, assignments to the squadron were effected and training began in earnest. Aircraft had been ferried to Ft. Knox during the time the Career Course was under way, and Godman Army Airfield soon became as familiar as Hanchey, Dothan and Daleville, Alabama. In short order, designated IP's got everyone through the appropriate check-ride and aircraft commanders/test pilots/etc. were appointed on orders. The lift-section, scout platoon and gun platoon began unit training, conscious of their last flight school instructor's comment: "Remember…that thing can kill you!" For the lift-section, the full array of formation flights, day & night cross-country, heavy load, sling-load, instrument training (remember your "PINK" card and the "Figure 8" approach?), preventative maintenance checks & services, and more, became the order of the day. In addition, the lift-section pilots helped the Rifle Platoon by serving as aggressors (on the ground). This gave the pilots a better perspective of what the Rifles were all about, as well as being good training. (There are many war stories about those days; don't believe everything you hear!)
The Aero-Rifle Platoon, Troop A, 3d Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry, Captain Jim Taylor, Infantry, commanding, was a new concept that was still under development at the time (1967), even though the 1st Cavalry Division (1/9th Cav) was in actual combat in Vietnam and writing the "book" on tactics. Tactics in Vietnam varied, depending on a unit's assignment (i.e. mountains versus delta), and at this time (to the best of my knowledge), the unit had no idea of its ultimate destination. The Lift-Section TO&E called for five utility helicopters, and while a Captain commanded the platoon, "he" was listed as one of the assigned aviators on the TOE. The Troop/Squadron modified this arrangement by assigning a First Lieutenant as Lift Section Leader; Aviation Warrant Officers staffed the other pilot positions. Crew chiefs and door-gunners rounded out the crews. The ground element was a 40-man Rifle Platoon set up with 4 squads of 10 men each. If I remember correctly, each squad had an M-60 machine-gun, 2 each M-79 grenade launchers, and 7 M-16 rifles, which had full-auto selectors that were not restricted to 3 rounds with each trigger pull, as is the case with the current issue weapon. A platoon sergeant and four squad leaders (SSG E-6) provided the NCO leadership.
Captain Taylor was a Vietnam veteran. He had suffered combat injuries during his previous tour, and had the scars to prove it. An infantry officer (non-rated), he was the right man, at the right place, at the right time. The platoon rapidly achieved cohesion, fostered by the daily training routine and high standards enforced by Captain Taylor and Platoon Sergeant Barber. The "patrol" was the basic training organization, and attention to detail was stressed in everything, everyday, especially in the little details…daily weapons cleaning and inspections; checking canteens to see if they'd been topped-off (CPT Taylor would even check squad leaders); wear of LBE including designating the location of canteens, ammo pouches (TOE issue was seven magazines per rifle)…the platoon went into its first fire-fight in Vietnam TOE equipped; afterwards, the M-18 Claymore bag was adopted - it held 20 magazines; each magazine was loaded with 18 rounds instead of 20 to lessen the possibility that a jam would occur; first-aid packets, back-packs (the platoon eventually discarded the issue "butt-pack" because it caused back pain and couldn't be made to carry comfortably); bayonets (later discretionary, mostly used as a regular knife although survival knives were an item of issue); entrenching tools (two per squad was deemed appropriate); at least two ponchos per squad (for litters, etc.); machine-gun ammo (four or five squad members carried extra belts); smoke-grenades (two per trooper); frag grenades (carried INSIDE an ammo pouch, NOT on the straps that were attached to the pouches…we had heard of grenades rolling around on the floor of choppers - besides, if you were going to throw a grenade, there was usually time to get it out of a secured ammo pouch); in Vietnam, the platoon maintained a conex container with resupply ammunition (broken down) readily available…(I won't say how close it was to the billet area); wear of soft-hats/steel helmets (the platoon went through a period of time in Vietnam, conducting patrols in soft hats…this was later changed to steel helmets for all missions); flak vests were left optional because of the heat problem; seats were initially left installed, then removed…until a visit by General Harold K. Johnson ended the practice. With seats installed, troops had to be careful that their gear didn't get entangled with the guys sitting next to them; otherwise, exiting the aircraft would be interesting!
The young warrant officer aviators were well trained when they reported for duty. While the Rifles were getting it together on the ground, the Lift-Section began its own training regimen. Long hours (day & night) were spent on basic formations, getting into and out of the basic V, echelon/stagger right, left, trail, inadvertent IFR…this last one was to help in the mountains of West Virginia when all five birds flying in a V formation were suddenly engulfed in clouds with mountains all around. Cool heads prevailed (not mine… I was a passenger sitting in the back with the troops that day, breathing cloud vapor, wishing I had my hands on a set of controls!). "OK, guys," (Robert talking)…"Let's go 'Inadvertent IFR' procedure in zero five seconds. Remember where you go; first one to break out announce heading and altitude. Do it now." (Or words to that effect.) And it worked…perfectly! It was a significant event in the training of the Lift-Section, coming as it did, after the Florida Ranger (Mountain) phase and the Dorrets Run Range accident at Knox.
As part of a flying demonstration for West Point cadets, two Hueys loaded with full crews and a rifle squad each, popped-up from a hide position down range and proceeded to fly towards the grandstand while a voice over the PA system described the aircraft and unit organization. As the two scout aircraft and two gunships that proceeded them had done, the Hueys flew in formation, but at 90 degrees to each other. No one saw or voiced opposition to the obvious danger, and blades hit. This tragedy shook the Rifles, as it would any unit. But as soon as possible following the rendering of honors to our dead, the unit was back in the air…and little by little, confidence was regained and training continued.
The Squadron suffered some hard knocks getting ready to go. There were more than a few aircraft accidents/incidents spread throughout the three Air Troops and HHT. Not too long after the Dorrets Run Range accident, when an OH-6 went into trees, there was a mandatory officers' call. A full colonel showed up and grounded the squadron. I remember the shock that registered in every face I could see. People were looking at the floor, at the ceiling, out the window; it was a hard thing to swallow. After charging us to "Think, plan, rehearse, know, do…" or words to that effect, the colonel announced, "This Squadron is now back ON flying status…get up in the air; do it right. Dismissed!" (Or words to that effect.) The birds managed to stay up, or get put down gently, but HHT rolled a tanker truck (or trailer) and the Squadron pre-Vietnam deployment toll was ten dead (Dorrets Run Range)… plus injuries. This was NOT the way to start!
CPT Taylor's "right arm," Platoon Sergeant Billy J. Barber, was the center of gravity for the Rifles. He would get a star added to his CIB in Vietnam, earn a Silver Star, and along the way train many young soldiers and officers. Shortly after the Troop's arrival in Vietnam, at Fire Support Base Nashua, he suddenly dove into the nearest bunker and was followed by too many others…as an incoming round landed inside the base perimeter. None of us "newbies" had ever heard the sound of incoming before, but Barber had. It's something you never forget. The stack of bodies diving in on top of him created more aches and pains than the incoming round (which landed harmlessly), but it was an important lesson for the entire platoon. It added credibility to Barber's already established competence. He was someone to keep your eyes on if you wanted to stay alive.
I first met him during a visit to a training site at Fort Knox. Barber was getting the Rifles ready for a 100-mile ground reconnaissance into Seymour, Indiana. As I recall, the subject of the day was stream crossing ("read" Ohio River, because that is what CPT Taylor had said he wanted!). As it turned out, the river was at flood stage when the date of the exercise arrived, so he relented and allowed the platoon to cross on a bridge. This was a demanding field problem, and it took its toll on CPT Taylor. At its conclusion, he would be reassigned to the Squadron S2/S3 shop due to old wounds acting up, but he did deploy with the unit to Vietnam in that capacity.
Lessons learned at Knox lasted into Vietnam. The platoon moved with weapons at the ready, with swivel heads and eyes the rule, anytime we were outside the wire. The addition of a scout dog and use of reconnaissance by fire (by the point man - any time he felt like it) prevented ambush, though the link-up with LRRPs was always interesting as a result. At Knox, there was a lot of work in the field, with each trooper learning hand & arm signals for handling aircraft in an LZ; how to set up a landing zone, hovering turns, etc., including use of wands at night. On a black, black night in Vietnam, 1LT Robert would land the lift-section with all aircraft blacked out (except for a faint glow in the cockpits caused by dimmed instrument lights on the consoles), in a V formation, shooting his approach to a blinking strobe light shielded by a trooper's hands, while he lay flat on his back in the middle of the LZ. These guys were (and still are) good!
When CPT Taylor's previous injuries resulted in his reassignment to the Squadron staff, PSG Barber was there to break-in his new replacement. Many (including Department of the Army) thought that the platoon commander should be an aviator, because it took an aviator to know how to set up an LZ, talk to pilots, etc. etc. An obvious fallacy, it took a while to discard those notions. By the time the platoon hit Vietnam soil, the NCOs and RTOs could set up and execute an LZ operation.
The Knox training was reinforced by deployments to the Ranger Mountain Training Camp in Dahlonega, Georgia and later, Camp Dawson, West Virginia. The Ranger Mountain Training Camp was a superb training event, and the Squadron was fortunate in being able to "drop in" on the facility during a break in the regular Ranger training schedule. The Squadron deployed from Ft. Knox by air and ground. The Ranger instructor cadre covered down on the Rifles (in all Troops) and functioned as observer/controllers throughout the training period. Training started with each trooper being introduced to the art of rappelling. A first for most members of the platoon, it gave a big boost to everyone's confidence level. (On returning to Knox, the platoon used the cliff that overlooks a portion of Highway 31W in the town of West Point, Kentucky to conduct refresher training and qualify new troopers who joined the platoon after the Georgia exercise.)
The major event of the Ranger Camp period for the Rifles involved splitting the platoon in half, with PSG Barber leading one group, and the platoon commander the other. An insertion of the entire platoon into a common LZ started things. Automatic weapons fire (blanks) in the LZ served to separate the two elements, which then commenced a recon mission - each element moving in a different direction. Both groups were to rendezvous at dusk/dark at a given set of coordinates. PSGT Barber's element was the first to arrive. That portion of the mission ended with the platoon commander's element arriving after dark had fallen. The challenge of PSG Barber's security outpost was a most welcomed sound that night as the two elements came together on a hilltop. The Ranger instructors were impressed!
After coming to appreciate the food served in the Ranger Mountain Training Camp mess hall (the best chow I have ever eaten - quality and quantity - while serving in the military), it was back to Knox and preparation for a Squadron ORTT. The Green River Valley was the operational area, and the exercise lasted three or four days as I recall, but the results have been lost to the years. If anyone remembers, please fill us in on how we did!
Following the ORTT, the Squadron was off to the hills of West Virginia. The Rifles mounted up on a Greyhound bus for the long ride, while troop aircraft and crews winged it. West Virginia is beautiful country, but "high;" no rice paddies. For the aviators, altitude would have a different meaning here. Height above ground was the critical factor, and each aircraft zeroed one altimeter before each take-off. "Real" mountains were also a challenge! The opposing (aggressor) force consisted of a Reserve "A Team" (Green Berets) composed of a group of professionals from the state of New Jersey (if my memory serves). These people were lawyers, doctors, etc. who worked out on weekends to train and stay in shape. On a Friday afternoon after work, they boarded a C-130 and conducted a night parachute jump over the hills of West Virginia (Camp Dawson). They pulled it off without a hitch, and then went to ground. The Squadron's mission was to find them and preempt any attack on the local community infrastructure.
The Rifle Platoon was inserted in a suspected area in an attempt to locate and capture insurgents. Shortly after setting up, as dusk settled in amongst the hills, a solitary figure came running into the Rifles' position and was captured after several (blank) shots were fired, and a physical altercation was arbitrated! The catch was a feather in the platoon's hat as this was a messenger moving to link up with the A Team; but with the position compromised, the prisoner was blindfolded, and the unit moved to another location.
The local population befriended the "insurgents" by providing aid and comfort, which included providing shelter (hiding place) and food. The small towns in the area had played their role many times during other exercises, and were well "into" the problem. In particular, a bridge the platoon was given to stake out, was within eyesight of an over-garage apartment (furnished by the local townspeople) that was being used by the aggressor force. As the action evolved, a pick-up truck came through the checkpoint one time too many, the last time with aggressors hiding under canvas in the pickup bed. The SF guys tried to get physical and claimed victory, but then the umpire pointed out the Rifles' machine gun positions in overwatch and called the exercise.
From that scenario, the platoon split again and moved to set up observation posts and monitor military traffic moving through a major local town; submit reports; set up sleep plan; maintain contact; field craft; hygiene, field sanitation, etc. At Endex, PSG Barber's element was found camped out in a local motel that provided good observation of the major road network! (Why didn't the platoon commander think of that?) We learned a lot and were good and tired. On return to Knox, emphasis shifted to prep for movement.
Next stop, Stockton, California. Platoons began ferrying aircraft for shipment to RVN. The Lift-Section with 1LT Robert in charge of the flight, departed Knox on a course that ran to Ft. Campbell, Little Rock, to Navy Dallas, then Ft. Hood, Webb AFB, Ft. Huachuca, Phoenix, Flagstaff, then Stockton, California (or something close to that). Crew chiefs got some co-pilot time, learned to keep it straight and level, make turns and descend; some few could execute a decent take-off and a very few could hover. These were skills that would save lives in Vietnam. The bootleg time was not authorized or talked about officially, but it was well known.
Next stop, back to Knox via San Francisco International Airport…long blond hair wearing a beard and blue jeans with an Army officer's TW blouse flopping loose; medals hanging from the pockets…the short hair stands-up on my head. Where are the MPs when you need them? Calm down; Mama said there'd be days like this…she was oh, so right! Forget them; every war has them. Pot-heads/"flower children"…not worth the effort, but makes you wonder why you're in uniform…fight for them? I don't think so…we fight for each other. To hell with them!
Say good-bye, Sam. Here we go. On a bus in the dead of night, we were taken to the Louisville airport. The buses let us off next to the aircraft; can't excite the natives. I guess we don't want a demonstration with sign-carrying citizens calling us names, so the terminal area is avoided. Up the stairs, weapon, duffel-bag and/or aviator kit bag and all…"There's no room!" "Find a place and sit-down!" Airline uniform moving bags; he's got a patch over one eye…pilot, co-pilot? Let's hope he's the flight engineer! Here we go…using lots of runway; we're really, really, really heavy…yellow and black stripes going by! Here's a fence! Will it fly? Shades of the gun platoon bouncing ammo-heavy C-Models off Red Catcher Pad, struggling through translational lift…whew! He made it! Here's California out the window; it's dark. What? No terminal? "This way; into the concrete drainage ditch." I suppose the California natives want to demonstrate, too. OK, ours not to reason why, etc. On a bus again. Port coming up; here's the dock. Get off; over here; in here; put your bags down; hurry-up; wait; Doughnut Dollies and older Red Cross ladies pouring coffee and handing-out snacks. Is this how it was for the old man in WWII?
Grey ship, a troop ship, the USNS (United States Naval Ship) Walker (as opposed to USS [United States Ship], which would designate a "warship"); long ladder slanting upwards; you have to carry everything in one trip. If you can't, drop something. No going back. It's damp and chilly; the humidity can be cut with a knife. Troops downstairs; we'll check on them later. Officers in staterooms…what? Ten officers in here and ten next door? But there's only one "head"…how are we…? "You'll figure it out." Junior officers get the top bunks; the ones with the 8-inch asbestos covered pipe running the length of the bunk. "What's the clearance?" "Don't worry about it…you'll have to slide under it; just don't try to sit up. If your nose is too long, well, you'll have to figure it out!"
OK, check it out. Where's the coffeepot? This boat is crowded (don't say "boat" again…this is a "ship!"). Two squadrons, a maintenance outfit, plus others…3,000 + souls plus boat/ship's crew? When do we eat? In shifts; first seating for breakfast is 0530. Remember when you're supposed to eat and how to get there. Walking the ship; so many ladders and compartments. Big open bay below decks; hammocks! How can they sleep? It's going to be a long trip. There's a band and it's "Anchors Away"…Golden Gate Bridge coming up; get ready…throw a coin, make a wish (wonder what the other 2,999 are wishing?), and then feel the first ocean swell roll the deck.
A visible tremor vibrates through the ranks; smiles vanish; there's a run on the toilets; some don't make it that far. Some try to puke over the sides, but don't allow for the wind! Now you're wearing someone else's vomit! Man! Hold on…pinch your nose; don't give in! Time to eat…are you kidding? The ship is slippery with puke; it smells terrible and you can't escape it. Where's the bow? Salt spray and wind in the face are the only cures and you have to fight for a spot. Oh man, it IS going to be a long trip! It takes three days at sea and a small storm to rid the compartments of the smell, and yet it lingers…. Not many takers for meals the first few days. "Eat all you want!" Yeah, right. Gradually, sea legs are acquired and stomachs settle down. The chow's not bad. The Navy always did eat better or so we heard…now we know.
What's that outline…Hawaiian Islands going by. What's next? Subic Bay, the Philippines. Beautiful trees, green grass, girls, beer, shore leave…be back at 2100 hours; stay out of trouble. As luck would have it, many were not paying attention! Finally get ashore. Solid ground feels good! Now I understand "sealegs." Well, what to do…follow the crowd. Need one of those famous Philippine beers…and stay out of trouble. Small building, looks like an "annex" officers' club…right. Place is crowded with fatigue uniforms; shoulder room only. There's a combo on the small stage; attractive Filipino singer (female type) and the quartet sounds good. Offset bar; nobody's feeling any pain.
Now I'm looking at the door to the place, and in walks a 4-Striper…and the warrants don't know what that means. (A Navy Four-Striper is the equivalent of a U.S. Army Colonel (O-6 type.) The next thing that happens is that he is relieved of his saucer hat, the one with a big anchor and eagle, and lots of egg salad on the bill. The hat moves across the room on the hands of the warrant officers, who think it's great fun! One look at the Navy Captain indicates that he's not a happy camper; face is red, really red…and getting redder! Get his hat before it's too late…too late! Whistles blow; the band stops playing; the Filipino singer stops singing…"Everybody out!" "This club is closed!" The warrant officers are not happy, but they start moving towards the door. Well, at least I had one of the famous 'San Miguel' beers. Nothing left to do but point boots in the direction of the dock.
Here they come; talk about diverse uniforms…here's one with a sailor's hat and blouse over fatigue pants; and there's one with Navy bell-bottom white pants topped with a jungle fatigue blouse…and no hat at all! The troops have been trading uniforms! We are in for it! Big crowd at the dock; the troops are slow to move up the gangway. Finally, one guy starts up, then another, then another, and finally, they all get back on board. "Get a head count; we can't leave until we know who made it back." "Yes, Sir." We check…"All present and accounted for, Sir." What a day!
Ship begins vibrating, and the land starts to move by at slow speed. Here we go again…but we're used to the sea swells, so it's OK…really. Good-bye Subic Bay. Little did we know that our short stay would eliminate the place as a future port of call for other deploying units. It's too bad, because we really had a good time while we were there! The Navy just can't take a joke….
More sea time; it's a long way to Vietnam (22/23 days?). Finally, lights on a distant shore; could it be? Yes…that must be Qui Nhon; 7/17th getting off…good luck. We later hear that they're ambushed while being trucked to a base camp in Pleiku. Meanwhile, it's out to sea again after another night of listening to concussion grenades going off against the hull of the ship…all night! Guess it works, because we're still afloat and headed for Vung Tau. Looks like a short stop at Cam Ranh Bay; ( will never forget the four freighters tied up next to each other, providing electrical power for the installation ashore). Lots of jellyfish in the Bay; don't remember who got off here; probably one of the maintenance units.
Sea again; next stop, 3/17 Air Cav goes ashore. Lighters alongside; over you go, just like an amphibious operation. Short run to shore…move to an airfield and wait. What is this place? Vung Tau, I think. Sun's going down; roll down your sleeves and put on repellent. C-123 next; everybody jam it up, all the way back, press up against the guy in front of you. When everyone is in this posture and all are on board, the word is "sit down." Everyone is wedged tight and effectively "strapped in." When we arrived at our destination, which I think was Bien Hoa, the Rifles boarded a bus! The buses took us to DiAn. Thus began the final phase of our training prior to engaging in combat operations.
The "Big Red One" had established an in-country orientation course at DiAn which was designed to teach newcomers the do's and don'ts in that operational area, essentially War Zone C. Time was spent moving through approximately two acres of ground in which punji stake pits, spider holes, and various anti-personnel mines and booby-traps were rigged, according to local VC practice. The platoon also confirmed each rifle zero and fam-fired all weapons, including tossing hand-grenades. Graduation involved establishment of an ambush site in a "low-profile" area close to the base. The mission was short-circuited when the platoon lost contact with the point-man. In the dark, he had moved out of sight/hearing of the platoon. When he realized his situation, he kept his cool and guiding on the glow from the lights of the base, made his way back to camp. Fortunately, he had no difficulty getting back inside the wire without getting shot! It was a chilling lesson we all learned that night.
Well, this was the beginning...