“E” Flight, 20th Helicopter Squadron
In early 1967, the UH-1F helicopters assigned to the 606th Air Commando Squadron Project Lucky Tiger were assigned to the 20th Helicopter Squadron, and ferried to Nha Trang Air Base RVN. Here the aircraft were assigned to “E” Flight, and attached to the 14th Air Commando Wing. The initial mission assigned to the organization was support of the 5th Special Forces (SF). The Green Hornets, so named because of the green camouflage paint and the Mini guns available to the mission, began their role supporting the Military Assistance Command Studies and Observation Group (MAC-SOG). The primary mission was to provide close air support for Vietnamese Air Force H-34s “Butterflies” infiltrating and exfiltrating six man reconnaissance teams into the “Prairie Fire” operations area in the Southern area of Laos near the tri-border region.
The aircraft had no armor, except for the pilot and copilot seats. All aircrew members wore ceramic vests for protection from small arms. The back plates from the pilot’s protective vests and spare flak vests were placed in the chin windows to stop any ground fire that might come in through them.
Originally armed with GE GAU-2B/APintle mounted Mini-guns and carrying up to 12,000 rounds of 7.62mm NATO ammunition, in late June the unit’s helicopters acquired rocket mounts, 2.75 Inch Folding Fin Aerial Rocket (FFAR) pods (LAU-59/A, each capable of carrying seven rockets per pod, and gun sights from friendly army units. The ingenuity of the maintenance teams assigned accomplished what the Warner-Robins Depot said could not be done. Initially, four helicopters were rocket pod configured. The Green Hornets now had some potent “stingers”
The “F”: Model, when converted to carry rocket pods, was designated the “P” model. As more and more Hueys were modified, the F/P designation became common usage for all the aircraft
The gunship crews learned their craft On the Job. Based at Special Forces FOB #2 at Kontum, crews and aircraft staged each day to Dak To air field. Here the SF command Post (“Hog Heaven”) assigned the daily missions. The gunship tactics needed to support the “Butterflies” engaged in the clandestine “Prairie Fire” and later the “Daniel Boone” missions were developed as various situations unfolded. During the first few days of the new mission, a Landing Zone (LZ) went hot and a Butterfly was lost to hostile fire. Gunship activity and A1E support suppressed the ground fire which permitted a second H-34 to retrieve the reconnaissance team and the VNAF aircrew members. This was the only Butterfly lost while under this phase of Hornet protection. In mid June, the Army-Air Force Roles and Mission controversy forced the Hornets to remove their mini-guns. For a short period of time, missions were flown with only M-60 and A-3 machine guns hung from bungee cords instead of the big guns. Fortunately the controversy was quickly settled and the Hornets were re-armed.
During the Roles and Mission controversy, it was determined that the Hornets could be armed in the defense of Air Force installations, but not in support of Army units. One gunship deployed to Bihn Tuy AB, located in the delta near the city of Can Tho. Here the aircraft and crew spent slightly more than two weeks on night anti-mortar alert, sharing the Local Base Rescue (Pedro) trailer. Random night patrols were conducted, as well as several hot scrambles. During the random night time sweeps, the gunners used starlight scopes to look for potential mortar teams. No mortar attacks occurred, and when the Roles and Mission problem was resolved, the aircraft returned to Nha Trang and resumption of the MAC SOG mission.
In late summer 1967, the rest of “E” flight’s helicopters, sporting M-60 door guns, began to replace the “Butterflies” as the primary infil/exfil aircraft. At this time, the occasional “Daniel Boone” mission would be tasked. Normally four gunships and three slicks would deploy to Kontum, with the air crews rotating every two weeks.
A mission profile began with the infiltration Aircraft Commander and the Team Leader reviewing the target area. Next was a random over flight of the area with three ships. The lead was a “slick” containing the team leader and escorted by a set of two gunships. The team leader would select his LZ, and the A/C would select the approach path and Initial Point (IP). Back on the ground, the three flight crews would compare information and confirm target area details. A mission package consisted of a set of gunships and three “slicks”, the primary infiltration aircraft and two spares. The flight to the IP was flown at 1500 to 3000 feet above ground level to reduce the chance of ground fire. Several methods were used to insert the team; however the most frequently used was the single file method. At the IP, the aircraft would change to an in trail formation, establish and maintain thirty second intervals then descend to the tree tops. At the target, lead would drop into the LZ and the other aircraft would over fly it. As the last huey crossed the LZ, lead would pull up and rejoin the formation. The group would stay on the tree tops until several kilometers from the LZ, then climb to a safe altitude and wait for a team O.K. When the O.K. was received, the air craft would return to base or another location as the mission dictated.
Numerous reconnaissance teams could be in the field at any time. So, a set of gunships would deploy to a Special Forces Camp nearest the inserted teams. Depending on the distance (Flight time) from the staging base, they could be joined by a set of slicks. Here all crews would sit on alert until dark or they were scrambled to provide rapid fire support and extraction capability if needed to support a team in trouble.
Scheduled extractions (few and far between) used the same tactics. A set of guns would establish a protective pattern over the LZ. If no hostile fire was encountered, the extraction Huey would make a rapid descent into the LZ, pick up the team, and then leave, with the gunships falling in behind the unarmed transport slick If the extraction LZ was overgrown with vegetation, or the extraction aircraft could not touch down, rope ladders would be lowered from each side of the aircraft. Often, the distance was too great for a rope ladder, so McGuire rigs were used. Each slick had three 100 foot sling equipped ropes lashed to a floor mount. Each rope was dropped through the trees to the waiting team. The helicopter would then rise straight up until the men on the ropes had cleared the trees. They would then be flown at about 40 knots to the nearest safe area where pilot would enter a high hover, then slowly descend until the men were slowly lowered onto the ground. The helicopter would then land and take the team inside.
A “Hot” or unscheduled extraction required different tactics. When the Forward Air Controller determined a team needed to be extracted, a set of gunships would be launched from the nearest location. If the team was in immediate contact with the enemy, the FAC would ask for a flight of “Hobos” (A1Es) to be scrambled from Pleiku for close air support. Other close air support was also used, but the Hobos were preferred. When the LZ was as secure as possible, the extraction aircraft were called in for the recovery. A sit down/low hover was nice, but many times the helicopter could not get low enough to pick up the team. Extraction by rope ladder or McGuire rig was difficult and kept the air crews exposed to hostile fire for extended periods of time. Gunships provided fire suppression as needed, but it was still very unnerving work for the “slick” pilots, requiring great skill and courage from each pilot.
In the late fall of 1967, Project Omega (Reconnaissance of the entire Ho Chi Minh trail) was transferred to MAC-SOG and the Green Hornets moved to a new tent camp South East of Ban Me Thuot. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Hornets provided logistical and fire support to the U.S. Army, ARVN Units, Army aviation at Ban Me Thuot, as well as continued support of the SOG mission.
In the summer of 1968, four Hueys were sent to Thailand to augment the Pony Express Ch-3s. Here they also operated under the Pony call sign. Fuel limitations prevented them from operating on cross border missions into North Vietnam, but they were actively engaged in missions in Southern Laos. In August of this year, the 20th Helicopter Squadron was renamed the 20th Special Operations Squadron, and all CH-3 Assets were transferred to Thailand .In August of 1969, the squadron’s CH-3s assets were transferred to the 21st Special Operations Squadron, and the UH-1s returned to Vietnam. Also in August, the Squadron Headquarters moved to Tuy Hoa AB. A year later, in the summer of 1970, the squadron moved again, this time to Cam Rahn Bay
From the fall of 1967 until 1972 countless missions were flown in support of the Special Forces. Loss of UH-1F/P assets to maintenance problems and combat losses forced a shift in tactics to using two slicks and two gunships for infil and exfil. In late 1969, Army slicks and even VNAF H-34s assumed the “slick” role. In 1970, the single engine P model Hueys were replaced by twin engine N models, and the Hornets resumed the entire mission role. Close air support from Hobos and other Air Force fighter aircraft diminished as the activity in “Omega” was increased.
The Green Hornets, as SOG’s private Air Force, distinguished them selves in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In spite of the loss of 19 helicopters to combat, Hornets prided themselves on bringing home the teams they had inserted. This is evidenced by the range of decorations awarded to its crews, from Purple Hearts up to and including the Congressional Medal of Honor to Captain James P. Fleming. Organizational awards include the Presidential Unit Citation as part of MACV-SOG, The Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Combat “V”, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry w/Palm.
The unit was deactivated in 1972, and then reactivated in 1976 at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (1976-90)
The primary mission of unconventional warfare and Special Operations continues to this day, using MH-53J Pave low III helicopters. The organization has participated in operations involving Panama, Desert Shield, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Desert Thunder, and other missions tasked by Central Command.
(Photographs courtesy of Dick Monroe and Bob Strout)
More pictures from Jim Foster
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