Visual Reconnaissance was seldom exciting and more frequently boring. Only the chance someone would take a pot shot at me kept me alert throughout the typical four-hour mission. This day was certainly no exception to the rule. The weather was settling in a low overcast on the tops of the mountains, making visual contact with the ground very limited. I checked in with Hillsborough, “Covey 535, over the fence.” Hillsborough acknowledged my presence and I settled in for the long haul. Based out of Pleiku in the Central Highlands, we Covey FACs kept up a 24-hour daily coverage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos.
Suddenly, my FM radio crackled to life and a very anxious voice called
for any aircraft in the area. In a
few seconds, I learned a Special Forces “Prairie Fire” team was in deep
trouble. The NVA had discovered
them and after a running firefight, pinned them down in hastily dug foxholes in
a clearing. They were getting
hammered and, with night coming on in a few hours, were afraid of being overrun
and wiped out. They needed help and needed it now!
The voice on the radio said there was enough room under the overcast for
me and “slow-movers” to work; getting there would be the problem.
I ordered close air support from Hillsborough and briefed them on the
difficulty of the situation. They
had two A1Es, SPADS, on the way. The
team gave me their location and I knew the area.
The only way in was to fly west until I could get a hole in the clouds,
descend into the valley and follow the stream up to their position. The valley
was narrow and the clouds hung on the ridge tops on either side. Just as I was about to give up, I popped into the open area
the team described. All I could see
of the team was their foxholes. Muzzle
flashes twinkled from the tree line to the southwest – close, very close.
The open area sloped downward to the south to the stream where the team
needed to cross and establish a secure position on higher ground.
Adding power, I climbed up through the overcast just as the SPADS arrived
and checked in. They had what I
needed, nape and guns, but the trick would be getting them into the target. Due to the limited maneuvering area, we decided I would lead
one in at a time to the target, direct the attack and then climb out and lead
number two in.
With my 02A running wide open and the lead SPAD mushing through the air
just above the stall, I led up the valley under the clouds and set up a tight
orbit over the team so Lead could hold a bigger orbit and run in under me.
I marked the target and Lead began systematically dropping napalm and
strafing the tree line. His
ordinance expended, Lead climbed up through the clouds.
I checked with the team and told them I would be back shortly with more
help. Back up on top, I got number
two in tow and threaded our way up the valley to the target.
The team got a short break during the first attack, but was now under
extremely heavy fire and in eminent danger.
With updated enemy locations, we started the air attack. The team was
getting desperate; you could hear it in the voice of the radio operator. We had
one more pass of ordinance and no more help on the way.
The NVA was crawling through the tall grass trying to get as close to the
team as possible so we couldn’t put our napalm on them accurately for fear of
hitting the friendlies. The team
leader’s request came through like a jolt of electricity – “COVEY, PUT THE
NAPE ON TOP OF US! DO IT NOW!”
“I can’t drop that close!”
“We’ll be under our ponchos with some dirt on top, COVEY, DO IT!”
Number two rolled in and made a perfect drop of his last two napes.
Red-orange flames spread across the clearing, black smoke boiled skyward, my
heart practically stopped. There was pandemonium on the radio! “You got ‘em, You got ‘em!
We can hear screaming and smell flesh burning! We’re outta here!” Number
two and I climbed back on top and I sent them home with my thanks and the
promise of beers. I’m practically on fumes and need to leave when the FM
squawks again. “Thanks Covey!”
They were safely across the stream, up the ridge on the other side and
would be safe for the night. Some days were
less boring than others.