Gunship Pilot with MACV-SOG Special Forces Teams into Laos

1967, the 119th preparing to insert MACV-SOG hatchet force (Photo by Stephen Pettit, Juliaetta ID)

By Gordon Denniston
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of the Sentinel

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Special Forces and helicopter crews assigned to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) engaged the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the famous “secret war in Laos.” The “trail” was the principal supply line used by the NVA to move men, arms and supplies from the Communist North into South Vietnam.

As we know, this “trail” was actually a massive network of roads, camps and storage areas. Cross-border MACV-SOG Special Forces reconnaissance missions were tasked to identify the exact locations of the NVA roads, troop movement, and facilities. Other MACV-SOG missions in Laos had a different objective… they aimed to directly engage the NVA in their own territory.

Ho Chi Minh road and bomb craters (Photo by Gordon Denniston, Daphne AL)

Generally, each of the three MACV-SOG units (Command and Control [C&C] North, C&C Central, and C&C South)

were headquartered at a “Forward Operating Base” or FOB, and had three ground components. The reconnaissance teams (RTs or Spike Teams) were usually composed of two or three USSF with 6-12 indigenous troops, usually Montagnards from various tribes. The “Hatchet force” was platoon-sized, usually three USSF with 20-30 indigenous troops. They were intended to be a reaction force to help rescue RTs that were in trouble. But, they were also used to engage in other direct combat actions.

Finally, each FOB had one to four company-sized units that were referred to as “SLAM” or “Hornet force.” These men were recruited mostly from Montagnard tribes and were directly commanded by Special Forces MACV-SOG men. In this respect, MACV-SOG differed from other Special Forces units such as Mike Force or the A-Team Striker companies. In those units, Special Forces troopers were nominally “advisors,” though in practice USSF usually commanded while in the field. These Hatchet and Hornet force units gave the FOBs a punch for cross-border opportunities.

MACV-SOG operations were largely declassified a few years ago [in the early 1990s]. Indeed the unit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation in 2001 in a ceremony at Fort Bragg that was well attended by survivors. Many of the MACV-SOG missions have now been publicized and much is now known of the Special Forces men who staffed that organization. Members of MACV-SOG were awarded nine Congressional Medals of Honor and twenty-three Distinguished Service Cross medals.

The Crocodile patch of the 119th AVN Co.

What is less well known is that the air assets of MACV-SOG were not ad hoc, but were definitively attached to the FOB and at least one of those CMHs was awarded to a helicopter pilot. Gunship and “slick” pilots were based with the Special Forces MACV-SOG troopers. They lived with them, ate with them, and spent nights at the same bar. They were an essential part of the mission planning and debrief sessions, and today the surviving pilots/air crews are welcomed at the Special Forces Association meetings, and many are members of the SOA.

The contributions and organization of the air assets of MACV-SOG has not been widely discussed. Indeed, some SOG Special Forces troopers from Vietnam may not even have been aware that the attached air unit was their direct asset for inserting, protecting and extracting the teams sent cross border.

In II Corp, the principal base for MACV-SOG was at FOB-2 in Kontum, re-named late 1967 as “Command and Control Central” (CCC).

The launch site and mission control for cross-border missions was from the airfield at A-244, the Special Forces Camp located at Dak To. That airfield had the field C&C (command and control) base for SOG.

Gunship over MACV-SOG base FOB-2, Kontum, 1967 (Photo by Lloyd Adams, Athens AL)

During the early days of SOG missions most of the Special Forces teams were transported into the enemy area and out again by H-34 helicopters piloted by highly skilled and courageous Vietnamese pilots. Alternatively, on occasion U.S. Air Force helicopters were used for these missions. Later, company sized U.S. Army helicopter units were directly assigned to MACV-SOG.

From the creation of MACV-SOG in 1964, U.S. Army gunships were the principal aerial fire support during insertions and extractions. Backing up the gunship support for the teams, the Air Force provided close air support (CAS) assets for bombing and strafing with A-1E propeller aircraft and jets. The forward air controllers in light planes scouted the area, spotted targets, and coordinated the air support. Over the Ho Chi Minh trail, the volume of NVA anti-aircraft fire was always intense so flying a slow aircraft or helicopter required new tactics and some luck.

In November, 1965, our Helicopter Company, the 119th Aviation Company (also called Assault Helicopter Company or AHC), was organized under TO&E1-77G. The 119th was operational under the 52nd Combat Aviation Battalion, 17th Combat Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade, headquartered at Camp Holloway near the town of Pleiku.

Camp Holloway, Pleiku (Photo by Stephen Pettit, Juliaetta, ID)

The 119th consisted of a Company Headquarters, two Airlift (slicks) Platoons, one Armed Escort (gun) Platoon, a Service Platoon, and other support detachments. The 119th operated and maintained a total of 21 UH-1D (slick) helicopters. These assets were informally known as “the Alligators,” or “Gators.”

There were also 8 UH-1C (gunship) helicopters, known as “the Crocodiles,” or “Crocs,” see informal unit patch above. In 1966, the Gators and Crocs were assigned to Special Forces in support of MACV-SOGs operations out of FOB-2.

I arrived in Vietnam on November 11, 1966 and was assigned to the 119th on the same day three Army gunships were shot down near the Cambodian border west of Special Forces camp A-251, Plei Djereng.

See action report: Colonel (Ret.) Phil Courts Report:

119th Gary Rogers, H-34 slicks, Viet crew, excellent men (Photo courtesy Gary Rogers, Houston TX)

I soon discovered that I was a replacement for these losses. For my first 6 months in Vietnam, I flew a UH-1C gunship on “normal” missions. During these months, I learned the finer points of tactics and developed skills and accuracy which were essential for survival. Most of the time, I flew the same aircraft and had the same crew members so as a team we became very proficient and accurate.

Life in Pleiku flying “normal” missions changed suddenly when we were instructed to pack our gear and fly to Kontum where I would be briefed after landing. No one in my unit knew where we were going or when we were returning. We were only told that “you are to going to fly for MACV-SOG.”

We quickly discovered that while the “normal” missions in Vietnam could get you killed, flying in Laos was LIKELY to get you killed. I had never experienced the volume and intensity of ground fire in Vietnam that we faced on most missions in Laos. We had gunship tactics that minimized the enemy’s ability to shoot you down, but in Laos we quickly discovered that we needed both discipline and some innovative tactics to nullify their defenses if we were to survive.

“Crocodile 3,” Gordon Denniston and crew, 1967 (Photo courtesy Gordon Denniston, Daphne AL)

We had the TEN RULES of the gunship pilot that included simple but logical things such as “don’t fly over the same place twice” or “only fly at tree top level or at very high altitude.” From tree top level to altitude was referred to as “the dead man zone.” In my opinion, it is important to note that modern day special operations core strategies directly evolved from the tactics that were first developed supporting these MACV-SOG Special Forces teams going into Laos. Those missions were flown into an enemy area garrisoned by an abundance of NVA troops that were equipped with everything from AK-47’s and RPG’s to 12.7mm and 37mm antiaircraft guns.

My job as a gunship pilot was to protect the “slicks,” troop carrier helicopters going in to insert or extract the MACV-SOG teams. We often inserted the teams into bomb craters, open fields, or on the actual trail. The insertion and extraction points were frequently the most dangerous moments of a MACV-SOG mission. These points were always the subject of considerable planning by team members and air assets.

The NVA frequently set up gun emplacements covering the relatively few likely landing areas. Then they would try to ambush the slicks as they were landing. If the insertion helicopters started receiving fire, the gunships would attempt to suppress that fire. If the landing zone (LZ) turned hot, the mission was aborted and we would paste that area hard with gunships, A-1E’s and jets, and those Air Force lads would get “up close and personal.” (Sidenote: A lengthy “john-wall graffiti” poem in FOB-2, “Ode to the Skyraider,” had these lines … “Dawn of the day you could see them arrive; With nape on their wings and blood in their eye…”)

A-1E Skyraider in close air support (Photo courtesy Gordon Denniston)

Usually the NVA would wait until the MACV-SOG team was off loaded before they started shooting. Once a team was surrounded and under NVA fire the extractions became much more dangerous.

The H-34’s would be a sitting target while they were trying to on-load the team and many times we lost a slick and were then faced with extracting both the team and the aircrew.

This would start an indescribable spectacle involving flights of helicopters and airplanes all over the sky trying to get our people out. I recall one mission where I was going in on a gun run and an A-1E was diving down out of the clouds to drop bombs on the enemy. We almost had a mid-air collision. The A-1E went over my head and the bombs went under me with one hell of an explosion just to the right side of my aircraft.

In the air we were always in danger, but in truth, the biggest threats were faced on the ground by the Special Forces teams that were often inserted into the center of NVA battalion size units. The small “Spike teams,” usually two-three Americans and six-twelve indigenous troops, were the core function of MACV-SOG and we worked hard for them. But despite their extreme professionalism and bravery, casualties were high.

When we flew support of the Hatchet force teams of several Americans and about thirty indigenous troops, we were sometimes lucky to get the two-three USSF Americans out, and on occasion we lost most or all of the indigenous members of the team. Sometimes a Hatchet force would be inserted as bait. They would engage an NVA battalion size unit of several hundred men who would then become targets for stacked air support, gunships, A-1E Skyraiders, F-100s, and even on occasion, B-52s (!).