|Title||A Perfect Day in Paradise aka The NVA Spring/Summer Offensive of 1972|
|Author's Name||Joe Potter|
Editor's Note: Joe Potter served as a Sidewinder FAC flying the O-1 with the 1st US Infantry Division. He returned to Vietnam as part of the Combat evaluation team flying the OV-10 and then returned in 1972 as a Covey FAC flying the O-2A. He may be the only FAC to serve three FAC tours flying three different aircraft. Joe retired from the USAF as a Brigadier General
It was a perfect day in beautiful Hawaii. The deep blue sky framed bright colors of endless flowers, green foliage and sunlit fields of pineapple. There was a cool refreshing breeze that played on my face as I considered what a "good deal assignment" I had with the 22nd Tactical Support Squadron (TASS) at Wheeler AFB.
It was spring 1972. This was a great time to enjoy an assignment in Hawaii, spending afternoons and weekends at the beach with my family. I was flying O-2 "Super Sky master" FAC aircraft from island to island (over flying a nudist colony occasionally), participating in field training exercises with the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, making several tactical parachute jumps a week and directing air strikes for Navy carrier-based fighters. As I leisurely drove home from Sunday chapel services, the sweet smell of Plumeria blossoms filled the air. All was right…except that, in less than 36 hours, I would be taking off on a FAC combat mission from Da Nang AB, Vietnam.
Most American combat forces had been phased out of Vietnam. Token forces remained to secure some bases hosting American Air Force units and to serve as advisors to Vietnamese infantry units. "Vietnamazation" was already considered a success. The war was winding down. Things were quiet…too quiet.
Suddenly on 30 March 1972, North Vietnamese troops poured across the demilitarized zone in full strength backed by tanks. They raced toward key provincial capitals and forward bases. It was TET 1968 all over again except this was worse. Most U.S. infantry divisions were gone. Air Force units had phased down and naval ships were at minimum strength. The unprepared South Vietnamese units were stunned but held their ground in most instances. They fought valiantly to protect the provincial capitals but some were lost after intense, overwhelming round-the-clock battles. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) threw everything they had into innumerable battles. It wasn't enough.
Near the DMZ, a cascade of intensive artillery, rockets and mortars preceded a frontal assault by three crack NVA divisions spearheaded by T-34, PT-76 and T-54 tanks. The forward firebases at Dong Ha, Ba Ho and Mai Loc fell, followed by the important provincial capital of Quang Tri. The sight of a North Vietnamese flag flying over the city square had a shocking psychological effect. The 1st and 3rd ARVN Divisions and South Vietnamese Marines fell back under heavy fire and waves of enemy units. Soldiers and civilian refugees streamed south abandoning military vehicles, heavy equipment and weapons to speed their flight. Finally, regrouping at the ancient Vietnamese capitol city of Hue, South Vietnamese units made a determined stand backed by constant air strikes and naval gunfire. The North Vietnamese high command hoped to capture the city for Ho Chi Minh's 83rd birthday.
Enemy divisions poured into Thua Thien province and bore down on the most significant city, next to Saigon. Hue came under a devastating attack with human wave assaults reflecting the enemy's determination to take it. Extremely accurate Soviet-made 130mm heavy artillery pounded the city's defensive perimeter. Still, the city held on…barely.
This same level of combat was evident throughout the entire country. The key provincial capital leading to Saigon was An Loc. Major enemy forces streamed out of Cambodia, rolled over the key firebase at Loc Ninh and converged on An Loc. Enemy forces overran the firebase at Quan Loi. I had flown out of Quan Loi on my first tour in 1967-'68. Heavy artillery, 122mm rockets, tanks and three NVA divisions carried on a relentless attack day and night for weeks. Enemy rockets and artillery pinpointed the defender's artillery batteries and quickly annihilated them.
A special ARVN reinforcement and relief column was initiated from Saigon consisting of the 21st ARVN division and the elite 1st Airborne Brigade, the highly touted palace guard. Progress slowed to a near stop as mines, ambushes and heavy engagements with the NVA 7th division hampered the relief column. In the meantime, enemy tanks broke through An Loc's defense perimeter and ran wildly through the streets. American "Sundog" FACs came to the rescue. Although they were met with sheets of heavy ground-fire, Sundog FACs managed to counter attacking enemy forces, day and night, wiping out enemy tanks and infantry assaults with tactical air strikes and AC-130 Spectre gun-ships. One of those Sundog FACs was 1st Lt. Tom Case, later Lt. General Tom Case.
I was with four other combat experienced FACs from the 22nd TASS at Wheeler AFB mobilized to augment the exhausted "Covey" FACs of the 20th TASS flying out of Da Nang AB. Within a few hours after receiving the message to deploy, we were packed, processed and on a C-141 headed back to Vietnam. In addition to our "Hawaii Five-Oh" contingent, President Richard Nixon was sending additional naval forces and entire wings of fighters, tankers, bombers and airlift aircraft. The North Vietnamese had read of phasing out of American ground troops as abandonment. To their shock and surprise, the North Vietnamese Spring and Summer Offensive of 1972 ran into a brick wall!
Our flight to Vietnam made a refueling stop at Anderson AFB, Guam then flew straight in to Da Nang AB. We received a quick intelligence update (I also checked on my pilot training buddy, Captain Jim Sehorn, who's F-105 had been shot down in December 1967. He was still listed as 'confirmed POW' in North Vietnam). After receiving the location of friendly forces, call signs, radio frequencies, ground fire reports and flying procedures in and out of Da Nang AB, we were finally included into the daily flying schedule. We flew two four-hour missions a day, or one during daylight and one during the "graveyard shift" at night, seven days a week.
I preferred night missions, as the bad guys couldn't pinpoint you as well. We were already losing three to four aircraft a day in I Corps due to heavy ground fire...F-4s, C-130s, 0-2s, OV-10s, A-4s, you name it, they shot it down. For the first time in the war, 100mm and 85mm anti-aircraft artillery as well as SA-2s were introduced into South Vietnam. Most aircraft were being brought down by a new heat-seeking missile, the Soviet-made SA-7 STRELA, fired from the shoulder. One of the Covey FACs, Captain Bill Jankowski, had the dubious honor of having been shot down twice on the same day! After he bailed out of his burning O-2, he was picked up by a "Dust Off" rescue helicopter and it was shot down! One of the few survivors from that crash, he crawled for two days back to the friendly lines of South Vietnamese Rangers. My first mission out of Da Nang AB called for a reconnaissance flight over the A Shau Valley then up to Quang Tri to report on enemy activity. As I released the brakes and started my takeoff roll, I realized that, only two days before, I had been enjoying the beautiful surroundings of Hawaii and a candlelight dinner at home with relatives visiting from the mainland. During dinner, they spotted my packed A-3 aviator's kit bag in the corner of the living room and remarked, "Is someone taking a trip"? Climbing out toward the A Shau Valley, I checked in with the command post at Phu Bai. The fighter duty officer was a former "Sidewinder" FAC with a second tour of duty in Vietnam as an F-4 fighter pilot, Major Denny Biggs. Approaching the last friendly firebase, I contacted the American Marine advisor to let him know that I was in the area in case they needed help. Finally, I was over the valley. There was an old overgrown airstrip, the same one that Major Bernard Fisher put his A-1E Skyraider fighter into in March 1966 to rescue his buddy and win the Medal of Honor. Other than an occasional "pop" from enemy ground-fire, it was quiet. Although the NVA held Quang Tri, they had somehow failed to destroy the TACAN station there. So, I tuned it in and flew toward the city. I was flying at 6,000' just outside the range of STRELA missiles (they said). This was quite a contrast to my 1967-68 tour in Vietnam when we flew out O-1 Bird Dog aircraft between 200'-500' above the jungle. We even wore parachutes this time! In '67 when I spotted a dozen or so enemy troops, I cranked up artillery fire missions, helicopter gunship teams or took them on myself with hand grenades out the window, my AR-15 or with fleshette rockets. Anything larger than a VC platoon deserved an air strike. This time what I saw was almost overwhelming: thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers walking out in the open and hundreds of sampans ferrying supplies and ammunition across the Cam Lo River! I called for air strikes or naval gunfire but all assets were already engaged in another battle elsewhere. For an hour, I observed the enemy maneuvering freely and took an occasional burst of ground-fire. Finally, a set of F-4s checked in and we scattered the enemy soldiers like ants. Just as this air strike was completed, an open radio transmission came over GUARD channel: "Beeper, beeper, come up voice!" Someone had gone down! In a flurry of radio calls, I picked up the coordinates of the downed aircraft banked sharply toward that location. They would need a FAC to fly cover and direct air strikes to keep the bad guys away during the rescue mission. As I approached the burning wreckage, two parachutes were visible on the ground. It had been an OV-10 Covey FAC flying out of Da Nang AB adjusting naval gunfire and hit by a STRELA missile. No voice contact was made; the two-crew members had already been captured as soon as they parachuted to the ground. The back-seater was a Marine warrant officer. Both POWs were marched to Hanoi and released a year later in March 1973. So ended my first combat mission out of Da Nang AB. We continued to lose aircraft at an alarming rate. One night, a C-130 aircraft exploded and disintegrated over the A Shau Valley. We recovered only three survivors out of 14 crew- members the next morning. Another day, enemy gunners were extremely accurate and we had three different rescue missions going on simultaneously.
Enemy 130mm heavy artillery was deadly accurate, well-camouflaged and, other than a split-second muzzle flash, left no telltale smoke. They pushed the big guns out just far enough to fire and immediately pulled them back under jungle cover. Since we could not pinpoint their locations exactly, we expended butane bombs that spread to an optimum critical mass before igniting and would neutralize an entire area with overpressure. They worked beautifully and silenced the guns.
As the months went by, the tide of battle throughout Vietnam slowly began to turn in our favor. Air power was the overwhelming factor. The battles during that period continued to be furiously fought as the enemy was determined to make this their last, victorious offensive. Even so, our combined firepower, responsiveness and accuracy completely devastated enemy divisions, tanks and heavy artillery positions. Gradually enemy units were decimated or withdrawn. The intensity of battles faded to a pre-offensive level by late summer. Happily, the "Hawaii Five-Oh" FACs (Joe Potter, Billy Boyd, Chuck Johnson, Ed Kamolz and George Bushy) returned home intact back to the 22 TASS and the beaches of Hawaii.