Saturday morning, October 5, there was no laughing when the South Vietnamese-piloted H-34 helicopters (code named Kingbees), flew west across South Vietnam from Phu Bai, near the China Sea, over the A Shau Valley into the target area. The weather was clear in Phu Bai, but cloudy over the AO.
During that flight, Black remembered how the launch commander had said this mission would be a cakewalk. Staff Sgt. Robert J. “Spider” Parks and Staff Sgt. Patrick “Mandolin” Watkins, however, knew that it was a tough target where the NVA had previously run out FOB 1 teams. Additionally, there were no new landing zones for the team insertion. For this target, Watkins was the Covey (code name for Forward Air Controller) rider in the Air Force O-2 Cessna, piloted by Air Force Captain Hartness.
ST Alabama’s insertion started smoothly, as the first Kingbee landed quickly with the One-Zero, One-One (assistant team leader) and three Vietnamese team members quickly exiting the aircraft.
As Black’s Kingbee spiraled downward toward the LZ, he observed an NVA flag planted atop a nearby knoll. From his days in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Black knew that the presence of an NVA flag meant that there was at least a regiment of NVA soldiers in the area. The knoll was surrounded by jungle. On the west side there was a 1,000-foot drop to the valley floor below.
The numbers didn’t compute for Black – approximately 3,000 NVA against nine ST Alabama men?
Several AK-47s opened fire before the Kingbee’s wheels touched down. Nonetheless, Black and the remaining three Vietnamese ST Alabama team members exited the H-34. As the Kingbee lifted off, the NVA gunfire increased significantly and moments later, the laboring Sikorsky H-34 crashed.
Although this was Black’s first SOG mission into Laos, code named, Prairie Fire, he knew the odds were stacked against ST Alabama. He and the South Vietnamese point man on the team, Cowboy argued vigorously for an immediate extraction. The team had been compromised. The element of surprise was gone. The other American, who had not gone through the Special Forces qualification courses at Ft. Bragg, remained silent.
“No!” said the new One-Zero. “I’m an American. No slant-eyed SOB is going to run me off!” Watkins offered the One-Zero a chance to extract. The offer was declined. The team was to continue.
The team leader then committed a major faux pas: he ordered the point man to walk down a well-traveled trail away from the LZ into the jungle. Black, Cowboy and the point man, Hoa, argued against heading down the trail. The first rule of SOF recon was to never use trails, especially well-traveled ones.