FIRE ON THE GROUND
Copyright 2003 -- Donald S. Pepe
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During May of 1968 we did not have to travel far from Dong Ha to
find the action. There was serious fighting going on just a couple
of miles north of Dong Ha on the southern edge of an area known
generally as Leatherneck Square.
The NVA had moved into the area in large numbers and the Marines
were trying to take them out in an operation named Dixie Diner.
There was heavy fighting with heavy casualties on both sides for
most of May and on into June.
At times the patterns for the airstrikes we ran would cross over the
runway at Dong Ha.
It was May 26. There were 20-30 knot winds at Dong Ha. Nobody was
launching except for troops in contact. There were troops in contact
in Leatherneck Square.
I took off initially with Southern Delta, Denny Kendig, a little
before 1600, but it was a jinxed effort from the gitgo.
First, Kendig loses all radio com. He is now strictly along for the
ride. He couldn't even monitor a radio frequency for me. Then I
suddenly got these terrible stomach cramps and a very strong desire
for an outhouse. Must have been something I ate.
There is no way I can run a whole-show troops-in-contact by
myself while fighting off the runs.
Since we were only a couple of miles from Dong Ha it was a
no-brainer. I radioed back to have a pilot and a plane with good
radios standing by. I landed and taxied straight to the ramp where
Doc Clement was sitting in his Bird Dog with the prop turning.
I braked to a stop and shut it down in the middle of the ramp.
Kendig ran to Doc's plane, and I ran to the outhouse (latrine).
So Doc and Kendig got to start the day. While sweeping an area 2.5
miles north-northeast of the airport, a Marine company, Fighting Mad
Kilo, had scared up some gooks and got them running. The idea was to
catch the gooks retreating across the open terrain and run fixed
wing on them. The plan worked pretty good up to a point. Doc &
Denny ran several flights of fixed wing and got a few kills.
It stopped working when the main body of retreating NVA made
it across a large rice paddy to a particular treeline located on the
edge of a small river near a deserted ville.
What no one on our side knew was that the treeline in question was
already occupied by a company of regular NVA heavily reinforced with
machine guns. It also had an extensive trench and bunker complex.
This is where the NVA had chosen to make a stand.
Meanwhile, back on the ground, my trip to the latrine seemed to have
purged whatever had been contaminating my innards. I quickly
recovered both my strength and my composure. By 1800 I was launching
with Southern India, Ken Antel, to relieve 18 and Delta on station.
Ken I liked to fly with. He was thoughful, intelligent
and a damn good observer. 6'1" or so, with dark hair and a dark bushy
mustache that almost always framed a sly smile.
He was from California and someone once told me that his family was
big in the avacado business. I don't know it that was true. We didn't
much about produce.
"Hello Dong Ha Dasc, This Catkiller 15, over."
"Catkiller 15, Dong Ha Dasc."
"Dong Ha Dasc, Catkiller One-Five is off Channel 109 at this time. I
have Southern India in the back seat. We're going out to relieve
Catkiller One-Eight out in the 2565."
"Roger One-Five, be advised One-Eight is up 384.7 at this time."
"Roger DASC, One-Five is switching 384.7."
"Catkiller One-Eight, Catkiller One-Eight, this is Catkiller
"Hello Catkiller One-Five, this is One-Eight, how's the tummy?."
"Better. What we got going here, One-Eight?"
"Well, we had lots of action down here earlier this afternoon. We
got 18 confirms with air. But it looks like the gooks have
scattered pretty good. The friendlies have stopped right now, but
I don't think they are finished for the day."
"Roger, One-Eight. Where is everybody?"
"All right One-Five, do you have a tally on me?"
"That's affirm, One-Eight. I'm about your 2 O'clock."
"Roger, One-Five, I see you. Look off to your 10:00."
"Roger, One-Eight, I have some troops just off the south edge of
that rice paddy you're flying over."
"Roger, One-Five, those are your friendlies."
"Is that all of them?"
"As far as I know. We haven't been running any air lately."
"Roger, One-Eight, I'll have my back seat confirm their pos. Now
where are the bad guys? "
"You see that small stream on the northeast side of the patty with
the treeline right behind it?"
"Roger One-Eight, I have the tree line."
"Well the last time anyone saw the gooks, they were beating it
across the stream and into that tree line. There might still be
some in there if they didn't just keep on running."
"Roger, One-Eight. What about ground fire?"
"We took a few rounds of small arms between the flights of fixed
wing. Nothing heavy?"
"Looks like there is some arty impacting down there just beyond the
"Roger, One-Five. Those are mortars from the friendlies and some
105's they are laying out ahead of the sweep. Just stay east of the
target and you'll be clear."
"Roger One-Eight, guess your back seat will be giving my back seat
the push for everybody."
"That's affirm, One-Five."
"Roger, One-Eight. Standby one."
I clicked the intercom. "Ken, have you got comm with the friendlies
and the arty?"
I went back to the Radio. "One-Eight, this is One-Five. Guess we got
all we need."
"Roger One-Five, This is One-Eight switching to DASC. See you back
at the ranch."
I switched to intercom and clicked up Ken in the back seat.
"Ken, what's happening with the friendlies?"
"They've had some pretty good action today. They stopped to handle
their caualties and get their shit together. They figure they can
sweep that paddy and get to that little ville beyond the treeline
"Roger, sounds good. We may be able to take it in a little early.
In hindsight, it might have been smart to shut off the arty, and
make a couple of low passes over the treeline to look for gooks. But
there was nothing special to indicate this treeline was going to be
any different from any of the others this force had swept over the
previous two days.
From altitude and circling east of the target, we did not spot any
troops through the binos. There were bunkers and a good bit of
trenchline. But that in itself was not particularly ominous because
bunkers and trenchlines, mostly abandoned, were very common terrain
features in Leatherneck Square.
Strictly in terms of my personal safety, it was probably fortuitous
that I didn't think of going in for a closer look.
The company began to advance squads across the paddy in irregular
formation. It was May, and the paddy was dry ground. Had it been
during the monsoon season, it would have been heavy sloshing.
All of the enemy fire previous in the day had been to cover escape.
Given the way the operation had gone to that point, there was likely
more concern for mines than for direct enemy fire.
The lead squads were almost half-way cross the paddy when the tree
line opened up. Several troops were hit immediately. Those
that weren't dropped for cover or pulled back to the edge of the
"Dong Ha Dasc, Dong Ha Dasc, this it Catkiller One-Five, Over"
"Catkiller One-Five, Dong Ha Dasc."
"Dong Ha DASC, Catkiller One-Five, I have troops in contact.
Scramble me two flights of snake and nape, please, and I'll take
any air you find me."
"Roger 15, will scramble two flites snake and nape. We'll check for
"Roger, DASC, I'm up 384.7"
"Roger, One-Five, 384.7"
"Roger, send the fixed wing to that push; and I'm on the 010 at 2
from Channel 109."
"Roger, One-Five, 010 at 2."
"Catkiller One-Five is switching back."
Ken was had already resumed the artillery mission. "Repeat, Fire for
There was chaos, initially; then a standoff. There was no way to
retrieve the dead and wounded. And sprinkled around the near part of
the paddy were troops that had found cover but were completely
The enemy was heavily bunkered. To be effective artillery would have
to hit directly on each target.
The only way to break this one was with air power.
But the air was not there. There was a lot of action that day in a
lot of places. The scramble pads were dry. It would be at least an
hour until I got the flights I requested.
While I was waiting for my snake and nape (250lb bombs and napalm) I
got handed a couple of flights of high-dive ordnance diverted from
High dive ordnance was delivered by planes that dove onto the target
from high altitudes--9 or 10 thousand feet. The angle of attack was
quite steep. The bombs were released 1500-2000 feet above the
target. After the release the aircraft pulled out of the dive into
a steep climb back to altitude. The bombs continued on their merry
way downward into the target.
The bombs used in these attacks were streamlined. They were designed
to sail fast and straight into the target. These bombs had very
little drag. High dive attacks utilized low drag bombs.
This type of attack was preferred in situations when there was a
particularly hostile target and when the surrounding terrain was not
in friendly control. This is what we ran in North Vietnam.
The idea was to come in from high, drop the bombs, and get back high
again before you got shot. This type of attack was safer but less
accurate. It could not be used for really close-in support.
The other type of air attack we controlled utilized high drag
ordnance. It involved a very shallow attack angle, something closer
to a landing apporach. The jets flew straight over the target and
released their bombs at an altitude of 100 feet or less.
These bombs were anything but streamlined. They had big fins on the
back that caught the air and slowed the bomb just enough that the
jet which released it could then outrun it. Otherwise, the bomb
would explode directly under the plane. Not good. The high-drag
explosive bombs were called "snakes".
Napalm was also high-drag ordnance. It was in drum-sized cannisters
that tumbled through the air between release and impact. Nothing
aerodynamic about it.
High drag ordnance could be dropped much more accurately, but at the
same time, the aircraft delivering it was much more vulnerable. It
was the weapon of choice for close air support.
"Snake and nape" could be run safely 50 meters or less from
friendlies by an experienced controller. The operative word here
is experienced. Don't try this at home.
I never liked to run high-dive south of the river. For one thing, it
was damn hard to pick up the plane once he rolled in. It is this
tiny silver dot high above set against the blue/gray/white
background of the sky.
You could not clear him to drop unless you saw him. There were times
the pilot had to take it around without dropping because I just
couldn't pick him up until too late.
This was not a situation for high-dive, but when it is all you have
and the troops are in a shit sandwich, it is what you run.
I decided against running the air on the treeline itself. It would
have been too easy for an errant bomb to end up on the friendly
position. I instead directed them onto the small bombed-out ville
that was just beyond the treeline to the north.
A ville is an easy target to pick up, even from several thousand
feet. Even if they hit the wrong bombed-out ville (in Leatherneck
Square all the villes were bombed-out), they wouldn't be hitting the
friendlies, because they were not in a ville.
Even though I was running on the ville I decided to put my marking
rocket on the tree line itself and directed the jets north from the
impact. One reason for this was to establish the absolute, under-no-
circumstances, southern limit of the bomb drops.
Another reason was to make the NVA think that the bombs were going
to be coming in on their position. If each man were thinking that
the next bomb that fell might be on his head, it would surely spoil
his aim a little.
I chopped power and nosed over into my rocket run. Hold it steady.
Line up the grease pencil mark on the windshield with the middle of
the tree line and squeeze. BANG! The rocket explodes out of the
I jam on the power to pull out of the run, and almost at the same
instant the NVA let me know how little appreciated my attention had
been. It was the steady continuous pop-pop-pop-pop of a 30 caliber
machine gun. There were some random pops of other small arms fire as
well, but it was the machine gun that got my attention.
Twist, turn, climb, and make distance. Oh Shit!
Finally, it stopped. A quick rush of relief, and back to work. "Dash
One, do you have my mark?"
Both high-dive flights were pretty good. I Started out each flight
dropping on the ville and then worked them south into the wooded
area behind our treeline. They worked over the ville in good
fashion, and even got a couple of bombs on the back edge of the
I probably could have run them on the treeline. But I did not
want even a remote chance of dropping on friendliess. High dive was
not meant to be run near ground troops.
The diverted flights had done their job of harassing the NVA and
diverting their attention. But it was now time to kill somebody.
"CK15, this is Helborne 576, over."
"Helborne 576, This Catkiller One-Five, go."
"Catkiller One-Five, Helborne 576 is two A4's with 12 Delta One
Alphas and Six Delta Nines. We're about 10 minutes south of Channel
"Roger, 576. This is CK15. I'm almost on top of 109 off the 010
about 2 nautical miles. We've got troops in contact. Be advised we
do have active artillery on the target. Remain at least 3 nautical
east of 109 until ruther adivised. Call approachig 109 please."
"Roger, Catkiller, understand remain three nautical east of 109,
we'll call you back just south of 109."
I keyed the mike button on and off to acknowledge Helborne's
transmission. The click was part of the shorthand of our air to air
communication. We were the only radios on the frequncy and there
were to be no further transmissions at this point. In the context
there was no need to speak anything.
At long last my first requested flight of snake and nape had
arrived. By now it was late in the day and we were losing light.
"Ken, we've got the snake and nape. They're about five minutes out."
"You want to shut down the artillery?"
"No. Don't. I want to use the arty to help mark the target."
I began finalizing in my mind my fight brief to the fixed wing. The
most important elements in the execution of close air support are
the run-in heading first and the pullout second.
The run-in heading had to be parallel to the line of friendly
troops. Otherwise an early or a late drop could land on the good
The chief consideration for the pullout was for the safety of the
pilots. After the drop you want the aircraft pulling toward the
direction of friendly ground or toward the ocean. You want to be
sure that if they do take a hit and the crew has to puch out, it
will not be over the bad guys.
"Catkiller One-Five, This is Helborne 576. Over"
"Five-Seven-Six, this Catkiller One-Five. Go"
"Five-Seven-Six is east of 109 passing through 4000."
I happened to be pointing south when I got the call. I put it into a
right turn, raising my left wing for an unobstructed view of
Helborne's reported location.
"Helborne 576 this is Catkiller One-Five. Tally Ho. If you will look
down at your 10:00 you will see a brown bird dog with white ailerons
in a right turn about 1300 feet."
"Roger, Catkiller, I have you in sight."
"Ok, if you will look below me you will see a large rice paddy with
a wooded area to the north. There is some smoke from the artillery
blowing across that wooded area."
"Roger, I have the smoke."
"All right. That tree line and the wooded aread behind it is our
target. I will mark with a rocket when we get started. Hang east of
the target until I clear the artillery."
"Roger. You copy, Dash-Two?"
"Dash Two copies."
I quickly switched to intercom."
"Ken, Shut down the arty."
Then back to Helborne.
"Five-Seven-Six, this is One-Five. Ready for Target Brief?"
"What we have here is a wooded area and bunker complex occupied by
NVA. The target elevation is approximately 10 feet. We've got level
terrain. Let's use a run-in heading of two-nine-zero with a left
hand pull. The friendlies will be to...Standby."
We were taking fire. A steady stream of tracers were shooting past
in front and sligtly to the left of the nose. The tight pattern of
the tracers accompanied by the steady, loud pop-pop-pop-pop sound
told me 30 caliber machine gun which at this altitude could be
Shove the throttle forward and steep right turn for a few degrees
past 90. Level out and start a left turn. Then snap it off and go
right again, all the while keeping the nose up. The idea is to
confuse the gunner as to where you will be next and make him quit
trying. I can't see the tracers now; there is only the sound of 30
caliber bullets cracking the sound barrier--lots of them, loud and
nearby. Oh shit.
After 10-15 seconds the gunner is persuaded and shuts down. He will
bide his time until he feels he again has the element of suprise.
"Helborne Five-Seven-Six, this is Catkiller One-Five. They got our
attention there for a minute. Ok, our friendlies are going to be at
your 9:00 approximately 100 meters. I will be orbiting inside your
pattern south of the target. Be advised that you will take ground
fire from the target area. Expect small arms and automatic weapons.
I'd like to have two passes with napes and two passes with bombs."
"Roger, Catkiller. Understand 280 with a left hand pull. Friendlies
at 9:00, 100 meters. Target elevation 10 feet. Two passes with napes
and two passes with bombs."
I thought for a second and punched the mike switch again.
"Five-Seven-Six, this is One-Five. Maybe we better make that one
nape pass. This is a pretty hot target."
The napalm was always dropped first. It held the most danger for the
jets. Big drums of jellied gasoline strapped to the underside of the
plane, the side people were shooting at.
A normal mission was two passes with napes and two passes with
bombs. Each plane passed over the target four times. If it were a
really hot target, a pilot might want to get rid of all of his napes
on the first pass. I decided I couldn't ask these guys to hang it
out with two nape passes on this target.
"Catkiller One-Five, Helborne Five-Seven-Six, we'll make two nape
I clicked intercom.
"Ken, is the arty off?"
"Helborne 576, this is Catkiller One-Five. Go ahead and set up your
pattern. Call turning downwind and I will put in a mark."
I flew southwest of the target and then headed east. I was
positioning to put in my mark, pull out, and be lined up with a view
of the first jet coming in on the target.
We were now into dusk and fast losing light. It is not impossible to
run fixed wing in close air support at night. But it almost is.
I was only every able to do it by getting some part of the target on
fire while it was still daylight. It was impossible to run fixed
wing at night starting with a completely dark target.
I had only one marking rocket left. That made little difference as
it would soon be too dark to mark a target with smoke rockets.
Fortunately the white phosporous rockets we marked with gave white
smoke and could still been in the fading light. But after this, we
would need some fire on the ground.
"Helborne Five-Seven-Six is turning downwind."
"Roger, Five-Seven-Six. Going in for the mark."
I chopped banked steeply, and rolled in on an east northeast
heading. Arm the switch. Hold it steady. Line it up. Squeeze.
"Catkiller, Dash One has the smoke."
"Okay, Dash One, from my smoke 6:00, 50 meters, 2 napes."
"Roger, 6:00, 50 meters. Dash One turning final."
"I have you Dash One. You're cleared hot."
The tree line lit up like someone had thrown a switch. Streams of
tracers from multiple weapons including at least one 50 Cal went
streaking toward and past the approaching aircraft. Meanwhile,
Helborne was sending streams of tracers in the other direction,
hosing down the target with his 20mm cannons as he bore in for the
drop. Guns blazing on both sides and closing fast.
My jaw dropped. It was like in the fucking movies.
Helborne took it on down the glowing chute and dropped two napes
right on target. The fiery explosion ran along the ground igniting
everything and everyone in its path. We had our fire on the ground.
we were in business for the night.
"Beautiful, Dash One. Okay, Dash Two. From Dash One's hits lets go
1:00, 50 meters with two napes....Be careful."
"Roger. 1:00, 50 meters.
From the back seat Ken clicked in. "Can you believe that?" Neither
of us had ever seen anything like it before. The visual effect of
the tracers was no doubt enhanced by the darkened sky through which
they flew. But in terms of sheer volume of lead per liter of air, it
surpassed anything I had seen before or have seen since.
"Dash two is at the rollin."
"I have you, Dash Two. Continue....cleared hot."
As Dash Two screamed in toward the target we were treated to another
shootout as spectacular as the one we had just witnessed. 30 and 50
caliber machine gun coming up; 20mm going down. Then two more lines
of violent flame racing through the woods. This wasn't the
movies. This shit was for real.
Each plane made three more passes, one for napalm, and two for
250lb bombs. Every one of the passes was an awesome pyrotechnic
display. The darker it got, the brighter the tracer streams
became. The scene was surreal.
What made this all the more incredible to me was knowing that for
every tracer I saw, there were at least a half dozen non-tracer
bullets right behind it that I couldn't see. I could not understand
how these planes weren't getting brought down. I was certain someone
would have to punch out before the evening was done. The fear and
the dread that I had was that one of these aircraft would turn into
a fireball right in front of my eyes.
In the middle of the Five-Seven-Six's flight Helborne 577 checked
in. My second flight of snake & nape was on station. I had them hold
at 5000 over our position where they could see and hear what was
Dash One was off his first bomb run and I was peering into the
distance trying to pick up Dash Two. I caught a little flash out of
the corner of my eye and jerked my head to the left. It was a stream
of 30 caliber tracers shooting up and past the cockpit on the left
Pop-pop-pop-pop-BANG. There was a momentary shower of sparks from
what appeared to be the top leading edge of the left wing roughly
six feet out.
I started my evasive manuvers and continued them until the firing
stopped a few seconds later. By that time I knew that my flight
controls were okay. My main concern was that I could have a breach
in my left wing tank and be losing fuel. I quickly switched to that
tank. I would rather use it than loose it.
I maintained a generally east direction during my manuvers so I
could pick up dash-two. I caught site of him and more or less
pivoted my horizions around him until he turned onto the run-in at
which time I immediately cleared him hot.
There wasn't much doubt what we were aiming at by that time, and I
was sure as hell not going to have any plane go over that target
The light situation greatly favored the NVA. The sun had set and the
ground features were fading to gray/black minute by minute. But the
sky was still light enough to silhoutte the aircraft for the ground
gunners. The equalizer was that we had fire on the ground.
The bomb passes were right on target like the napes. But just at the
end of the flight something very uncool happened. As dash-one
leveled off for his last bomb drop two new 30 caliber machine guns
opened up, one on either side of the the run-in heading at a
distance of what looked to be 75-100 meters. Crossfire.
"Where the fuck did he come from?" Ken came over intercom with the
exact words that had gone through my mind. The new gunner on the
south was firing from a position that I would have judged near or
behind friendly lines. I would never have given clearance to drop
there, and here is some NVA gun crew blazing away at my A4's. Now it
is too dark to see anybody, I have the hottest target I could
imagine, and I am confused about where the friendlies are.
"Ken, get on the horn to the friendlies and see where they are from
"Find out if there is anyone anywhere near that asshole. We've got
to kill him. If he is as close to them as I think he is, have them
"Dash Two, From the right hand nape fire bring it back about 40
meters, 7:00." I was trying for the 50 cal.
Dash Two rode down the chute of fire, through the crossing 30 cals,
and delivered his last three 250 lb bombs as directed.
On target, but did we get the 50?
Five-Seven-Six did very good work. The dropped everywhere I asked
them to and showed some incredible balls doing it. Some of the
original gun sites were no longer firing, but others had popped up.
The enemy was well fortified, well equipped, and numerous. It was
obvious they were willing to take heavy losses.
The target was too dark and too hot for me to get a complete BDA. I
gave them a 100% on target, thanked them, and told them we would
pass further information down after the ground troops had swept the
The target brief I gave Helborne 577 was pretty much the same as the
one I had given 576 except for one thing. I changed the runin
heading 180 degrees, 110 instead of 290. I had two good reasons for
One was that we needed to mix it up a little bit for the NVA
gunners. Make them switch their aim to a new direction. The other
was information I had gotten from Ken on the location of the
friendlies. They had no one to the east or southeast our new gunner
friend. I could clear the jets to run 20mm in his direction without
risk to friendlies from the overspray.
We came under fire twice more between the two flights, once with
small arms, and once with 30 cal and small arms. Not as close as
the previous attempts. I had started getting used to it which is not
a good thing to be.
"Dash One is at the roll in."
"I have you, Dash One. You're cleared hot."
The 50 cal was still there. Or maybe it was a replacement 50 cal.
Large, glowing 50 cal tracers anchored the hail of fire directed at
the attacking A4. Again the crossfire. Again the splash of two
napes and the rush of flames across the forest floor.
Helborne 577's flight was a close copy of 576's except that it was
now much darker, and the visual effect was even more stunning.
On Dash Two's first bomb pass he got some good 20mm into the area of
our gunner friend south of the run-in. The gun did not fire on any
of the remaining runs.
Then on Dash One's final bomb run he centered a three bomb drop on
what appeared to me to be the exact location of the 50 cal.
When Dash Two made his final run, there was still heavy fire, but
no 50 cal.
Again, the BDA was limited. You can't see much in the dark,
especially when they are shooting at you. I thanked 577 for a job
well done and sent them on their way.
The friendlies were secure for the night. The rest of what we needed
to do was best done in daylight.
I landed about 9pm. The damage to my wing was minor. It was
apparently a tracer round that hit at an angle and glanced off. The
shower of sparks looked more serious than it was.
I launched at first light the following morning and ran three
flights of air over the same general area. But the enemy had vacated
during the night.
Every aircraft that took part in the night attacks took hits. I
still don't know why at least one of them didn't go down. From all the
fire we took on the bird dog that one glancing shot was the only hit.
There's training; there's preparation; there's skill; and there's just
The following day ground troops swept the woods. The NVA had left
behind 19 bodies and numerous destroyed weapons including a 50
caliber machine gun.