Grunt’s Challenge To An Army Gunship Pilot
By Darrell “Moe” Elmore
In 1970, I was Company Commander of Charlie Company, 2/503d, 173rd Airborne Brigade operating out of LZ English near Bong Son in northern III Corps. At that time we carried out our “Search and Destroy” missions with relatively small size elements. An additional responsibility was to provide the firebase with the company’s mortar section. About midway through my command time, I took R&R to Australia.
The afternoon before I was to arrive at in-country R&R center, I got a hop on a Huey to Lane Army Air Field near Qui Nhon. One of the units flying out of Lane AAF was the 61st AHC (Assault Helicopter Company) which supported the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
That night I had a few drinks with some of the pilots I knew when one of the gun ship pilots started bitching about how slow the guys on the ground were. He said they just plodded and they could not wait around some times. I quietly told him that if he and other pilots felt “grunts” were too slow, maybe they should come out to the field and visit. “Get a feel for the life of a field soldier,” I added. That ended that exchange and we continued other conversations. The next morning I was off to the in-country R&R Processing Center and soon boarded a plane for the “land down under” where I had a great, carefree holiday.
Once it was over, I returned to Vietnam and resumed command of my troops. A few days later we got a resupply and surprise-surprise, one of the gun ship pilots jumped off. He had accepted my “challenge” and come for a visit.
I took him up on the base and started a VIP tour. He had only been there for a few minutes when I got a call to immediately take a platoon and reinforce a Cavalry troop in contact. I called to alert the 1st Platoon Leader to get his men ready, then called by headquarter crew telling them the same.
During the prep, I told the Weapons Platoon Sergeant to get a rifle, some web gear with canteens and two bandoleers of ammo. He quickly returned with the gear which I handed to the surprised pilot. I told him the best way to learn why we were so slow was to see us in action. He was going with us. I put him under the care of the company medic and my artillery FO. Within minutes were picked up on our LZ and linked up with the first platoon enroute.
We landed in a valley in the Tiger Mountains with a lot of grass fires going filling the air with dense smoke with the action up a steep hill. Temperature was near 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity equal. Not a nice day.
We assembled and I made radio contact with the Cav. We organized a scheme of maneuver and I gave the troops a quick operations order. We formed up and started up the hill.
We moved up, made some contact and had a lot of close air support from the cobras the Cav had called in. As we continued the attack the NVA were giving ground at first. As we got closer to the top of the hill we heard a Soviet 12.7 – 108 mm heavy machine gun working. It got into a duel with a cobra and we held up while the cobra engaged. It was quite close as frags from the rockets were rattling in the trees. The gun shut up and we were going to drive on when we got a call on the radio.
Stop the advance, pull back and move to the LZ to be picked up for a return to our AO. Apparently the crisis had ended and we were no longer needed.
We moved down and assembled into chopper loads. As we waited I got another call. We had a Ranger team in the An Lao Valley that was in heavy contact and being pursued. I got the leaders together and gave a brief order explaining what we were to do and how we would do it. Just then the first Huey started to arrive. Our guest, a CWO2 who was built much like a fire plug and trained by setting on his ass, came to me and said, “I can’t do it. I will bring the rifle and gear back tomorrow but I can’t go with you. I will never ever, ever bitch again about how slow you guys move.” I reminded him he was carrying a really light load so what was his problem. The reply was basically that he knew that, but he had never really understood what a grunt had to face.
The choppers arrived, we boarded and off we went less one gun ship pilot.
I might add that I ran into him once when I went to visit some wounded and I was unable to buy a drink!