Note: I am submitting this for Your Military Story member Thomas R. Murrell. This is a lengthy account of his powerful experience in Vietnam, and the memories that haunt him to this day. He actually was going to have it published as a book, but here I have broken it into parts to make reading it easier. Please look for the other installments of his story in the Forum.
This is the place in the normal war story where I’m supposed to take you through the missions I was involved in and the humorous and tragic circumstances that occurred during my tour. In other words, this is the place where I would tell my war stories. Only I don’t have a lot of war stories, and I can’t remember the details of a lot of my time in Vietnam.
It was a year that dragged on forever with few distinguishing mileposts to hang anything on. Each day was like the day before and like the day that followed. The changes that occurred in our mission and in the personnel I was stationed with seem now to have occurred so gradually that there were no red letter days to mark the events. A typical day started about a half hour before first light, probably around six o’clock, for the radio operators. One of us—we rotated each day—got up, shaved, showered, and dressed, and grabbed a bite to eat if he wanted.
When we had three radio operators, one worked the morning one day, the afternoon the next, and the evening the next. This last was rare by the time I got there, as we ran few night missions unless we were on convoy duty. Convoy duty required 24 hour a day coverage, so we each worked 8 hour shifts.
After awhile, we were down to two radio operators. So one worked the morning one day and the afternoon the next, and rotated back and forth between the two. That way each of us got one day to sleep in and one to get up early.
Thirty minutes before the helicopters were to arrive at Chi Lang, the operator on duty fired up the generator and went into the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and turned on the radios. Shortly thereafter, the two fire teams we’d be working with that day would check in with their ETA to Chi Lang.
Once they were on the ground, they came to the TOC for the day’s mission briefings. These were given usually by the Operations Officer or his assistant. When I arrived, and until February 1972, the Operations Officer or S-3 was Major McCormick. His assistant was Captain O’Neill. Their call signs were Baron 03 and Baron 03 Alpha. Major McCormick was known informally as Major Mac; Capt. O’Neill was known as Alfie.
The pilots and copilots of both the Hueys and the Cobras were briefed on the latest intelligence information in the area, whatever enemy activity had been reported by Cambodian ground commanders, and generally any changes in the situation on the ground in the AO in general. This was followed by the mission plans for the day. These plans included where Major Mac thought they needed to go and what commanders they would be talking with. The radio operator on duty wasn’t required to listen to the briefing, but as there was nothing else going on, I generally did. Apparently, that was a surprise to Major Mac. One day, there was a Lieutenant Colonel visiting. He was introduced to me as someone who was coming into the unit to fly. Later, he came back at a time when no one else was in the TOC but me. He asked me to tell him what I knew of the situation in the AO, and I proceeded to give him what I had been hearing for weeks at the morning briefings.
While this was going on, Major Mac came in, apparently looking for this LTC. He quickly saw what was going on and took over briefing the LTC. Later, he expressed surprise that I knew so much, and he told me that the LTC. was impressed by my knowledge of the tactical situation. (It really wasn’t any big deal. I just repeated what I’d hear from either Major Mac or Alfie at the daily briefings, but I guess they weren’t used to enlisted men paying such attention when they weren’t required to. I’m confident that any of the radio operators could have given a similar briefing. In fact, I think I got my first one from Leon Mayes or Mike Hall.)
After the briefing, the first fire team would take off to get ready for the first mission while the second team would brief their crews as necessary and wait in reserve. We only flew one team in Cambodia at a time, keeping the other in reserve in case the first needed help. This was not a trivial consideration, as our helicopters were more familiar with the area than an Air Force rescue helicopter would be, and ours could get where they were needed more quickly. Plus, not only could they make an extraction from the ground if need be, they also could provide a lot more fire support with the Cobras than an Air Force Jolly Green could provide.
Missions were programmed at around two hours, that being the usual fuel limit of the helicopters. In an hour, a helicopter fire team could get to Phnom Penh. The general plan was to make contact with various Cambodian ground commanders to learn what, if any, activity was in their area. Once they got information from the ground of suspected enemy activity, the mission commander, that is the Baron backseat, would direct the team to fly that area and see what was there. If the information checked out—and it might not because the enemy had moved out or was hiding from the helicopters or was just plain bad information (perhaps the ground commander was settling some old score—the backseat would radio the TOC with the map coordinates and target information he had seen. Target information could include enemy soldiers on the ground, structures in the area, fortifications or other fixtures, weapons seen: whatever information led the backseat to believe it was a valid enemy target.
I would pass the information along to the duty officer in the TOC who would check it against a huge wall map of the AO that we had. This map was actually a series of very detailed Army topographical maps that listed even small clusters of homes on it. Assuming the information in the description matched the coordinates, and it usually always did, the target request was phoned in by the duty officer to a one-star general in Saigon, code-name Blue Chip. Usually, we would get a response back in the TOC from Blue Chip within 10 to 20 minutes. It would either be a target approval or disapproval or an approval with restrictions. The most common restriction I can recall was that a target would be approved provided no structures were destroyed. I radioed the result back to the mission commander, who generally took the answer without comment, generally but not always.
As you can imagine, this was a rather maddening process. A fire team could be over a target for as much as 30 minutes before a clearance was granted. The enemy on the ground wasn’t likely to stay there with helicopters present unless they were in a firefight and couldn’t move safely. Not infrequently, our helicopters would begin to run low on fuel about the time a clearance was granted, and the strike might be put in rather hastily. Sometimes tempers grew short during the wait. It was, however, the way the air war in Cambodia was waged, and as far as I know no one violated the rules.
I say that because I hear and read a lot about how indiscriminately the US uses its airpower in conflicts. I find that hard to believe based on my experience. I’m sure it can happen and does happen that wrong or inappropriate targets are struck. But in my judgment that is exceedingly rare given both the checks and balances in place and the training and discipline of the people involved.
On more than one occasion, I recall that one of our helicopter teams was taking fire from a .51 caliber machine gun that the NVA had mounted in a pagoda. Normally, our Rules of Engagement allowed us to return fire if fired upon and then gain altitude until a safe level was reached—we called it “breaking high and dry.” At this point, the backseat was to call in a request for clearance to go back in and attack those who had attacked us first. However, we could not fire on a pagoda, even to return fire. And the fire teams obeyed that order. It seems amazing now, and in my opinion certainly spoke to the professionalism of these men that they followed the rules even at the hazard of their lives. This is hardly the work of men who were considered undisciplined, as has been said in the past of Vietnam Veterans.
Truthfully, I don't know how you remember this stuff in such detail ... I remember "incidents" fairly clearly, but have forgotten most names, the minutia of briefings, and what not.
I was also a comm person. My specialty was Radio Relay, tactical microwave. I was both a tech and an operator. Spent my days traveling around I Corps setting, operating, and tearing down microwave radios supporting temporary operations and permanent combat bases. It was a great job.
Anyway, it's been an interesting read. I loved watching Cobras in action!