Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Colonel Robert E. Stoffey. Stoffey served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and Forward Air Controller in the Marines. It was his job to support ground troops by directing fire and performing evacuations.
Col Robert E. Stoffey:
Well, I was in the engineering field and was drafted into the military, went through a naval flight training in Pensacola, Florida. And then had my options there to go Navy pilot or Marine. Went Marine. First tour was in Japan, flying helicopters,. And then that squadron was sent away back to the States and they transferred me to a squadron, a Marine observation squadron called the VMO-2 on Okinawa. And on that island of Okinawa, we had two types of aircraft. In VMO-2 we had HOK helicopters and we had OE-1 Bird Dogs. And our job or mission was to support the ground units with all supporting arms such as close air support, attack bombers, naval gunfire, and artillery. And so we flew those three different missions out of both environments. The helicopter and the OE-1 Bird Dog.
Everything in the Marine Corps is oriented to the support of the rifleman. Including air support, naval gunfire and artillery. And our mission was to perform those tasks of finding the enemy, fixing the enemy, and destroying the enemy with those supporting arms.
Since the Marine Corps has its own air arm and its ground units are closely tied to the air support, both fixed wing aircraft and the Marine Corps air wing and the helicopters within the air wing, the training on a daily basis is a closely evolutionary situation. Where daily we use those supporting arms and we're tied in extremely closely with the troops. And the difference I suppose, from the Air Force is they don't do that on a daily basis. And therefore they're not as closely knit as the various levels of the Marine Corps fighting forces.
Well, in the Marine Corps, in many cases the pilots themselves are assigned six months or longer periods with the ground units as a ground FAC, to get the flavor and the feel of what it's like to be with the real, true Marine, the grunt on the ground and eat the dust and the canned food and so forth. And as a result, when they get back in the air, they have a better understanding of what's happening on the ground. Both from a professional and from a personal feeling of how that Marine is doing on the ground. What he really needs from support in the air or the other supporting arms.
I think one thing you have to remember in all of this is the forward air controllers and the AOs and the VMOs of the Bronco squadrons basically as I said earlier, existed only to support the troop. And I don't think any of the pilots and the aerial observers ever forgot that we were there to support them in the naval gunfire, artillery and forward air control of attack aircraft. And I think that knowing that that young Marine could rely on very close in bombing drops and very close in particularly machine gun fire, which is the most accurate fire, that they were going to be well protected by their air and could rely on us. And that's probably the greatest satisfaction you could have. That you're not only saving their lives, but you're turning the tide of the battle. And many times the FACs and the AOs turned the total tide of the battle from one of total destruction of friendly troops to not only them now being protected, but them counter attacking many times. And these were the satisfying parts of doing that mission.
Many, many times the FACs saved the day.
There's an extremely tight bond between the air and the ground units and a real close understanding of the maneuvering procedures of the ground. And this is paramount, particularly when the ground units get close in fighting quarters with the enemy. The Marine in the air has to understand that close proximity and the dangers that are posed by bringing supporting arms, whether it be naval gunfire, artillery or close air support within close proximity of those troops.
Well, in the first tour it was primarily flying helicopters and we had a lot of small arms and we had .50 caliber machine guns, but we didn't encounter AAA until the North Vietnamese got down there. And actually North Vietnamese started coming in slowly in late 1965. They were the first time up in the I Corps area around Da Nang tactical area of responsibility that the Marines were in, that we were exposed to North Vietnamese, and they were still in small numbers, but however, when I returned in '69, they had fielded full military units. And they brought with them AAA guns as well as .50 caliber size weaponry. And so there was a lot more capability that the North Vietnamese were firing up with.
AAA could blow it up entirely up in pieces in one hit. And so AAA is not the environment you want to operate in. And if you can avoid it, you will. And there are some tactics that we developed later on as the war progressed and then after the war for high threat environments. The Soviet style equipage of weaponry that they had to protect their areas.
An example of the increased fire powers. I was up on a trip to Laos one time up near the Laosian border on just a reconnaissance mission and returning. I was coming down through a valley and I was fairly low because I felt I was pretty far away from any large concentrated troops of North Vietnamese when all of a sudden an Air Force O1 crossed my path out in front, maybe about, maybe a mile and a half away. And it just blew up. And went down in pieces. And I immediately made a sharp turnaround and orbited the area looking for parachutes or survivors or anything. And I already had a red light, a 30 minute fuel warning light on. And so I couldn't spend too much time. So I quickly called for a relief OV-10 to come out there. And I hung around until he arrived. And when he arrived, he took over looking for the two possible survivors. There weren't any. We never did find any. And it was AAA site obviously. No small arms or .50 caliber machine gun. It was just a couple of fast shots and it just blew it right out of the sky. And it could have been me and probably would've been me because I was in the same flight path coming down that valley when this Air Force plane just crossed out in front of me. And I actually went through some of the pieces of the metal.
Well, generally you get over the area on an assigned mission for a specific area, or you could be out covering numerous areas on a daily basis and reporting into various companies and seeing how they're doing. Or you can get airborne and within minutes of being airborne when reporting into the Da Nang DECS, which was the Da Nang direct air support control unit that feeds FACs, the aircraft, the bombers.
Once you get airborne there, you can immediately be assigned a mission if there is contact with the enemy. So our objective was to find the enemy. If we couldn't find them, we would be calling all the ground units to see if they had made any contact with the enemy, and our job was to get there as fast as possible and take control of the situation from the air to ascertain immediately can we handle it with our onboard ordinance on the OV-10 Bronco, or do we need fixed wing. Fixed wing aircraft were with us at all times. While we were airborne over the battlefield, we had aircraft both Navy and Marine Corps and Air Force, predominantly Marine Corps in that area where we worked and they were with us for two hour missions up there for them. And if we needed them, we'd call them down from 20,000 feet generally. They sat around up there and were on alert, ready, itching to come down and waiting for us to find something to drop bombs on.
A typical situation would be when I was flying along with my aerial observer looking for any problems, when all of a sudden a company commander called up in panic saying that they were pinned down. The entire company pinned down in a rice patty near a village. And there was heavy machine gun fire coming at them and they were unable to maneuver. Just laying in the water and in the rice patties. Couldn't maneuver and return fire to this tree line that separated them from a nearby village. And so I immediately called for some A-4 attack aircraft that I had overhead. And they had 250 pound bombs and I rolled in and made a couple of strafing runs while they jockeyed, the A-4s jockeyed to get into position, the proper attack positions. I rolled in with my four M60 machine guns and strafed the area. Then came back and strafed it from a different direction. And then again laid some 2.75 inch high explosive rockets in there. When the A-4s were now ready, they called me they're ready. Then I brought them in with their 250 pound bombs and then requested Da Nang DASC to send me another section of a Marine A-4s with napalm. Which I then ran in the napalm from another direction. All right down the tree line. And then came around to check a bomb damage assessment. And when I did, to my surprise, North Vietnamese trooper stood up in the middle of it with an AK-47 when I came down low and started shooting at me. And I was just astonished that he was still alive, but he was shooting, so I had to do away with him. And then I came down lower to look it over and there was quite a bit of destruction. So I told the company commander, I think they're okay to go ahead and attack. So they went through with their plan of getting through the tree line, attacking it and then capturing that area.
A lot of things could happen in that OV-10 cockpit with an aerial observer or a well experienced former ground officer who was either an artillery officer or an infantry officer already with a minimum of six months of combat. He's in the backseat. He's capable of being a FAC, a naval gunfire controller and artillery controller and you, the pilot in the front, the same. Both of you controlling, capable of controlling all three supporting arms.
A typical example would be where we had troops in contact and reinforcements en route to a rather large village. And the North Vietnamese were pouring in from the northwest. And they had some boats coming in from the east and they already had control of the village. And so I ran airstrikes from my front seat position as a FAC right onto the gun positions that were not AAA, but they were a .50 caliber machine gun emplacements. And they were manned and shooting. I ran bombs on that with Air Force 1000 pound bombs as the aerial observer in the backseat was setting up an artillery unit to fire on the northwest, upon the North Vietnamese that were coming from the northwest. And then right after that when he had established that, then he switched right over to naval gunfire and fired some naval gunfire rounds to the east upon the ships. Or not ships, but boats that were in the river.
Once we decided on how we were going to handle the precarious mission at hand, the aerial observer and the pilot discussed who was going to handle what, so there'd be no conflict. And who was going to handle what radios. An example in case was if the pilot was running attack air bombers on, he would be on a UHF radio. And he would be talking to the ground on the FM radio. The ground troops had only FM, so that specific combination of dialogue would take place. The aerial observer in the back seat would be on HF speaking to the naval gunfire, but he also had to come up on the same frequency as the pilot in the front seat as far as talking to the troops go, on FM. So you had to be a little cautious on who was talking when and try to keep it all going at the same time if you had all three supporting arms bearing upon the enemy, who was fleeing sometimes or were just moving into the area. And you had a very fast situation going. And plus you had to be very careful that you didn't get your attack bombers shot down either. So you were in position to observe how much flack they were getting so you could warn them or even pull them out of there temporarily until you neutralize the area maybe with naval gunfire. So it was quite a exciting period of maybe... It could go from 30 minutes to two hours of very steady excitement between the pilot and the air observer controlling all three supporting arms.
One of the most dangerous things would be that since you didn't want to bring your attack air always in on the same heading so that North Vietnamese gunners wouldn't know time after time, "Here they come again, I'll easily hit them." You wanted to bring them in from different directions. You had to be very cautious and aware of which way you just told them of what heading they should come in to drop their bombs so you wouldn't be in their way. So you could work inside in a close arc closer to the ground and still stay out of their way so you wouldn't have a mid-air collision or even have a bomb drop on you.
Once we had them oriented where the target area was and so forth by, we in the Broncos dropping flares, popping flares and lighting up the target area. And once we were assured that they really understood where they were in relevance to the target area and what altitudes of the target was and so forth, then we would then require the fast mover or jets to turn their lights off. And we had our lights off. And that type of environment is extremely treacherous. And in addition to that, as the fighter bombers came in through the attack run, they would get low enough to get temporarily blinded by the flares. And then they would pull off into blackness and try to regain their night vision. So likewise, we in a Bronco would be in and out of losses of night vision. One of the tricks of the trade there was the close one eye when you were near the flare so that when you pulled out of the flare area and it was pitch blackness, as you climb back up to make another marking rocket or shooting a high explosive rocket down on the enemy, you would then open the good eye that didn't lose the night vision and be able to see what you're doing temporarily until you reoriented.
What would happen was we would have these air on station or we would go back to Da Nang DASC, which is the direct air support control unit and ask for more aircraft. And we would also ask them for specific ordinance line up to match the target. So we didn't always get that because we had to take what the aircraft were ready and armed with at times. And sometime it didn't match it exactly and presented us a problem.
But we would go out, find a target, and many times if it was a fleeing type target because of our heavy ordinance on our Marine OV-10s we were able to decimate a good portion of it with the ordinance we had on board. But if it was a large continual target, why then we would have to bring the bombers in. And so as the aircraft would report to us having been directed to where we are on a attack in, or a radio vector to us, then they would find us and we had painted our wings white from the rest of the fuselage, which was green. Because we were predominantly over jungles. And the Air Force and Marine aircraft pilots couldn't see us against the jungle. So to assure added safety, we had the wings painted white so they could see us flying around over to the dark green jungles. When they reported in we would ask the pilots, the lead pilot of a two or four plane division of aircraft, what their ordinance is? How much time do they have on station, which was very precarious to know because sometime they were coming in from Thailand. Maybe sometimes they were coming in from just 20 miles away from Da Nang. So you could work them a longer time. So when they arrived on station, you would find out what type of ordinance they had so you could set them up for the proper attack scenario you wanted them to perform. Knowing the fuel, as I mentioned, was very important. And then you could exercise them or you can at times even give them a break while they orbit the area and you could bring somebody else in who had lesser amount of fuel. Bring them in and relieve them and then bring these guys back down if they had another half hour on station.
A typical scenario would be the FAC is on station with an OV-10 Bronco. He now has found out what the target is. Very specifically decided how he wants to handle the target. In this case he's going to use close air support to Marine F-4s arrival on station and they report their vicinity of the aerial observer and the FAC in the OV-10. The OV-10 request the pilot, lead pilot, what's the type of ordinance he has? How much time he has on station? And said, "Are you ready to copy mission?" The pilot says, "Roger." The pilot in the fighter bomber responds by saying, "Roger. Send your mission." And the FAC, then tells him very specifically what heading he wants him to come in and how many bombs per run he wants him, after he has given him a full description of the target. And then the pilot of the attack bomber has to come back and repeat it exactly. And so it's confirmed. And particular to heading, if there are friendly troops in the area is of paramount importance. So no fragmentation from the bombs exploding hits any friendly troops or villages and so forth. But once the pilot in the attack bomber has acknowledged that, then he is then told, report to the FAC rolling in. And that means that he's at his desired altitude with his playmate or his wingman for his roll into attack the target. At which time he calls as an individual rolling in. And the wingman of that attack bomber is given usually about a count of five to seven or so to roll in next. And so there's a little separation between the attacking bombers. The attack fighter bomber now is en route down to the target. The aerial observer has to maneuver into position. The team of the aerial observer and the pilot in the OV-10 Bronco have to rapidly move into position so they can visually cite the attack lineup of the pilot coming in with the bombs. And confirm in his own mind that he's in the right alignment of whatever degrees heading. If it was a 360 degree heading given by the FAC to the attack bomber, or if it were a 270 heading. You need that confirmed. Once visually confirmed that he's on the right attack route in, then the FAC will give him a command. A cleared hot. At which time the attacking pilot will say, "Roger cleared hot." And at that time he throws his switches, bomb switches into the armed position or ready to drop position. And continues on and then he'll say, "Two away." If it's two bombs dropped. And the FAC will respond, "Roger that. Two away. Looking for them." And then when he sees the impacts, he'll say, "Roger. Got two hits. And dash two, are you ready?" And dash two says, "I'm rolling in hot." And then he'll go to dash two, the number two attacking aircraft and he'll tell him, "Did you see those hits?" And he's whistling down at several hundred miles an hour now so he's ready to drop. And once you confirm he saw those hits, then you say, "From those hits, hit 30 meters at six o'clock or 20 meters at four o'clock from those hits." And he'll acknowledge that, the attacking pilot will respond by acknowledge where he was supposed to strike now. And then he says, "Two away." If he's released his bombs. And if he doesn't, sometimes the bombs are hung up and the FAC will tell him, he'll say, "You didn't drop any." And then he has to check his switchology and sometimes in the heat of a battle, if this has been going on for 20 minutes and there's a lot of firepower going around up and down from ground to earth and from above down, believe it or not, sometimes somebody might roll in the first time without having the switches on. And it's happened.
The most exciting part for the FAC is to see if the enemy is being hit. And so you catch yourself sometimes erroneously, precariously getting a little too close in. And then you start receiving more enemy fire, A. Or B, you may get too close to the attack route of the attack bomber. So you got to watch that because you get so gravitated to the situation and fixed into what the actual aerial circus is that's taken place that you can get in a lot of trouble yourself.
Some of the most common losses, unfortunate losses of the OV-10 Bronco were caused by weather due to the areas where we were operating in the Da Nang area, as you head west from Da Nang, it's all mountains. And then it leads into Laos and there are very, very high rolling mountains, but with a lot of valleys. Sometime a lot of our action took place in the valleys during rainy season and cloudy skies. And several of our planes were lost by flying into boxed canyons. In other words, you were boxed in. You got in there, ran a couple of missions there and found yourself... You couldn't get out. Or you turned. And when you turned, you went into a cloud bank and impacted upon a mountain. So some of the losses sustained by the OV-10s were weather related. Just as some of the helicopter losses were weather related.
Only during the monsoon seasons. When you really had torrential rains and that. One of the major concerns was being boxed in. The other concerns was getting too low in ravines and having yourself boxed in, instead of by canyons, but boxed in by firepower, by .50 caliber machine guns on both sides of a mountain shooting at you. And not knowing should you continue or try to dive lower into small arms fire or try to accelerate as much as you can and climb. But then you're really slow if you go too steep of a climb.So the canyons were always a real serious problem.
But again, on the other hand, if you had streams of North Vietnamese troops in those canyons, that was advantageous to you because they were trapped too. Because they had no place to go except up the side of the hill. Which, you could attack them there. So on occasion, I trapped large numbers of them in canyons. Some that I found myself and others that we had deep reconnaissance, people counting numbers of people from hillsides nearby and some of them in fact in conjunction with other army, US Army recon people that were on other hills. And when you put all the information together, you found them.
One of the most precarious situations that I found myself in was a night flight where a CH-46 helicopter was shot down about two o'clock in the morning and I responded in an OV-10 with an AO and brought some Air Force fighter bombers in, F-4s. And lit up the area with my flares. Didn't need too much light because the flames were still burning from the CH-46. And I started playing cat and mouse with three .50 caliber machine guns that had bracketed the site. And apparently one of them was, or maybe all three shot the CH-46 medevac plane down. And it turned into about a two hour battle between myself and these three gunners. And it got to the point where by about three in the morning or four in the morning, I was going to get them or I was going to stay with them.
And so I was able to get two of them. I never did get the third one. And by then I was low on fuel, physically totally exhausted, and I said, let's go home and we'll get them tomorrow. And working through that night, because it was a very low overcast, about 3000 foot overcast, it was extremely difficult to bring both the Marine and the Air Force attack bombers in under that cloud coverage. And there were mountains all around. And that became a very dangerous situation. And both of us running with the fighter attack bombers without lights, me, myself without lights, and on one of the pull offs of a fighter, an Air Force fighter, came right up under me. I didn't realize it until he went by and his air blast or airflow from the top of his aircraft just shook me and violently moved me around. And I knew how close the miss was. He just missed me. He didn't know it and I didn't know. And he never knew it, but I knew it from the shaking of the aircraft because he lifted me about 10 feet in the air as he went right under me. Then I realized that we better step back and redo this a little bit and maybe a few more flares and kind of start it all over. Which is what I did. I took them back up. I didn't take them above the overcast because it's extremely dangerous for them to work their way back through the overcast. But I took them out some distance to the east safe area. And then we started all over again. But it was about the closest call I had from mid air, anyway.
The mission of the FAC and the aerial observer in the Marine OV-10 was a very dangerous mission. But because of the danger, there's a little excitement, a little exhilaration, and a desire to do it and perform it. Because of the unknown and the precariousness of it. On the other hand, knowing that you had a lot of weaponry at your disposal, including the attack bombers, at almost any given time, unless the weather was precluding it, it was probably observed by us as being not as dangerous as it really was.
We didn't think it was as dangerous as it was when in reality it was extremely dangerous. And of course, quite frequently the enemy after having been bombed many times or attacked by OV-10s, got to the situation where quite frequently they wouldn't fire at you if you were in their area looking for them, until you turned away from them. And then they would really fire at you. So anytime you made a turn, you are probably in a very bad situation as far as the enemy goes. Because that's usually when they fired at you. If you were facing them or they knew that you could see them, many times they were reluctant to fire. They'd rather wait you out and hope that you just went on to another area.
In a scenario with the Marine division and the force level reconnaissance groups, and they were separate groups, that the Force Recon groups went deeper out into enemy territory as a warning screen to the division. And then the reconnaissance, regular reconnaissance Marines were closer in, but still some way out and very dangerously out in enemy territory. They would be dropped by helicopter at one hill, but go elsewhere then once they got on the ground. Many of the times, I would say that most of the time their only line of communications with the rest of the world, meaning for them the Marine Corps, was through the FACs and the AOs in the OV-10s. Now we would know where they were supposed to be after the drop the day before. We would know where they are, but we never flew over that area, so we wouldn't accidentally bring any North Vietnamese snooping about looking for them. So we would fly not far from there, but orbit in areas within radio distance.
And many's the time when I would call into them and they would respond by whispering. And the first time it happened, I thought, "My God, the guy is whispering to me. Why?" And he'd say, "I could reach out and touch one of them. They're just walking by us right now. The North Vietnamese infiltrating just went by and here come a few more. I have to whisper to you." And I would tell him, "Don't even talk if necessary. Don't be talking." "I don't want to. You're the only one I'm talking to. I'm way out here in the middle of nowhere. I need to talk to somebody." And so at that time, it would go on sometimes quite a while where they would be really whispering into the radio. And they would have to turn their radio down so the North Vietnamese just passing by wouldn't hear them on the radios.
And so one of the major things was communications that the FACs performed for the deep reconnaissance. And of course the other was, they knowing that they could call upon us to try to get them out of there if they were found by the enemy. Now you got to understand that reconnaissance people were not far out there to confront the enemy and fight with the enemy. They're a small force, generally of eight people. Theirs is mainly to observe and get information back to division. So the division would be prepared for what may be coming their way.
As a result, as soon as the enemy made contact with the recon units, the mission would be ended. That was the end of their assigned mission and they had to go home. So if the contact was made and it was a very aggressive contact where there was a lot of close in machine gun fire and hand grenade distance, then we would be called upon to get them out of there with our helicopters. So we would have to coordinate it as a FAC to get a full activity group of attack helicopters and transport helicopters to get them out.
A good example of an extract, and I've been on numerous ones as well as all the other FACs in that theater of operations would be on April 23rd in 1969. I went out on a standard routine search and reconnoiter mission to look for the enemy when I got a call from Da Nang DASC that a fellow squadron mate was encountering the enemy down in an area about 65 miles southwest of Da Nang. And the enemy there had already surrounded an eight-man Marine reconnaissance unit. So I went down to see what the situation was and checked in with the Cobra pilot who already was involved with the situation. And it turned out that it was my commanding officer who had just checked into the squadron, a Lieutenant Colonel Sandy Morris. And he was in the front seat of one of our newly arrived Cobras as a gunner. And at that time the Cobra in the front seat gunner had access to a grenade launcher. The pilot flying behind him, who was a fellow by the name of Major D.E.P. Miller. And D.E.P. had access of course in the Cobra to the machine guns and rockets on the Cobra. And he had been communicating with the eight-man unit. The eight-man unit had already told Major Miller and Lieutenant Colonel Morris that they had lieutenant shot and killed from the eight-man unit. And that two were wounded. So that's when I checked in. However, Major Miller came back to the reconnaissance unit, the sergeant in charge, and said, "Can you get the body of the lieutenant?" And he said, "No. He fell off the cliff and fell out in front of a machine gun nest. We can't get him." So Major Miller said, "Well, go get him." And he said, "We can't." And so I overheard all this and just then Major Miller and Lieutenant Colonel Morris's plane, which had been out there for some time, having come from another mission, was low on fuel and they had to leave to An Hoa to refuel. So he handed the situation over to me. And so I had already called for attack bombers. The closest ones were very close, minutes away, sitting on a hot pad at Da Nang. They were Air Force gun slingers. And they arrived within minutes and they unfortunately had 1000 pound bombs. But the enemy already had surrounded the reconnaissance unit. And as a result I brought in the bombers on what I thought was the logical area where more North Vietnamese reinforcements would come in and had them drop there a load of a 1000 pound bombs in that area. And I had then immediately requested some Marine A-4s with 250 pound bombs and then also some with napalm. And I started working a circular area at the base of this hill to try to cut off the North Vietnamese, more troops getting in, to work their way up to the side of the hill to where our eight-man unit was. Which included the dead lieutenant and two wounded. And the North Vietnamese kept pressing on closer and closer. And so I was shooting as much, as close as I could with the four M60 machine guns I had. And bringing more air in as I tried to bring the troops down slope to a nearby LZ. Which was probably about a half a mile away. The troops couldn't see it. They're in dense jungle, but I could see it from the air. And I knew where the troops were because as soon as I got there, I asked them to shoot a pencil flare up through the triple canopy jungle to ascertain where they were. Then I estimated where they were by minutes as they were moving toward the LZ in the direction I told them and a compass heading down toward the LZ. However, about halfway down the slopes through the triple canopy jungle, they came under intense fire from the western side. And I just luckily had some A-4s with napalm there. And on the west side of the troops there was a river running down that way. And so I palmed on the other side of the river so it wouldn't get near our troops as they were trying to get out of the area. In the meantime, I earlier had asked the sergeant, does he think if I knock out the machine gun nest if he can get him? He said, "I think we can get the body." And so I knocked out the machine gun nest. That took me a little while to find it because it was under a big log from a fallen tree. But every once in a while I could see its sparkles. I knocked it out and then a couple of the Marines grabbed the lieutenant and got his body down a slope. And then eventually, after much effort, got them fairly close to the LZ when Major Miller and the skipper in the Cobra returned with two Hueys that they ordered to come with them when they were refueling. And simultaneously the previously requested CH-46 evacuation helicopters that Major Miller had called for before going back to refuel, they arrived on the scene. And ironically, another OV-10 from my squadron arrived on the scene. So we set up a racetrack pattern with the OV-10s. I was the tactical air coordinator airborne to do the whole scenario there.
And so we set up a racetrack pattern on the west side with OV-10s shooting guns and rockets. The two Hueys with the Cobras on the right hand side or east side of our attack, strafed and rocketed there as the one CH-46 stood way back as a reserve in case the first one going in would be shot down.
And the first one went in over the LZ and hovered there, taking a lot of intensive fire while the five remaining troops carried the two wounded and the one dead and hooked them onto a rope ladder. Then after hooking the dead and two wounded onto the rope ladder, then they climbed the rope ladder and the CH-46 lifted off and headed into a very scary situation. Which was, as they lifted off, they went off a cliff and they were at 2000 feet over a valley. And it's a unforgettable scene and a real circus act to see these eight people wounded, dead and alive hanging from this rope ladder over 2000 feet in the air. And in the meantime we saturated the area with rockets, guns and bombs. And then I semi escorted them back into a safe area, at which time they landed. They didn't land the helicopter, they left the rope down first and touch and the troops got off and so forth. Then they landed and then got in the helicopter and they went back to Marble Mountain airfield.
I think the extracts by all means were the most precarious because the whole objective of our missions were to prevent the death of any fellow Marines. And that's why we were there by whatever means possible. And in the scenarios of these extracts of the recon people, there was always that chance of losing some. And that was rather impacting and frightening to know that you might lose some. And many times we got them out and sometimes, well, we didn't get one or two and it was very disheartening.
The enemy's attitude in the Da Nang area, particularly south of Da Nang, anywhere from the 30 miles to 60 miles south and southwest of Da Nang was one of respect for the FAC and fear for the FAC because they didn't fear the plane as much or the occupants of the plane, but they knew that they'd be reigned upon with bombs if they tangled with us. So many times, even though they were trying to aggressively do something, they would stop it until the OV-10 would leave the area. However, at one period there in the summer of '69 in the Que Son Mountains about 40 miles directly south of Da Nang airfield, there was a large unit of North Vietnamese that was constantly moving through that area. And so they set up a radio station there, and that radio station had multiple channel frequency capabilities. And on more than one occasion, I would go out and anytime I flew around there, the North Vietnamese operator would come up in fairly good fluent English and call me by name. And it was obvious after conversations with him that he was going to kill me. Of course, he would advise me that, "We're going to kill you today." And so forth. But from talking with him, I had to come to the conclusion that he had been there for quite a while and knew all our squadron units by call signs. So anytime anybody got airborne in the area and they were using our call signs, these people would know about it. So I kind of dedicated myself and a couple other fellow pilots and VMO-2 are going to get this guy. And ultimately we did get him, but we had to get him from a ground attack and we coordinated with our ground units after we knew exactly where he was by radio triangulation. And we had a small attack force go in on CH-46 helicopters and finally captured the guy. They didn't kill him, but they captured him. And he had all kinds of documents of our daily activities. And he was pretty sharp. He was a real intelligence gatherer. So it got a little personal with the verbal exchanges between he and I and he and other Bronco pilots.
An OV-10 pilot or an aerial observer with Broncos would've been a really prized catch and there was a $1000 reward for any AO or FAC captured by the North Vietnamese in the area that we operated on. That was common knowledge now. That was put out in a couple of different bulletins and that. I'm not sure where the source came from, but it was commonly expressed that we had a $1000 value on our head if we were captured or killed. And of course, the rationale is quite simple, because of the knowledge. We knew almost every grain of sand. We knew all the routes the North Vietnamese took, we knew of every hill, elevation of it, how many boats were in a river. That was one of our daily missions was somebody went out and counted the boats by each village so we could see if boats were bringing in weaponry, if they were bringing in food, if they were bringing even logs. At one time, we caught many of them just bringing logs in so they could bring logs from the jungles in to build bunkers closer into the city of Da Nang. So we knew a lot. We obviously knew more than anybody around, and we tried to convey that to at least the brigade level commanders as possible. And so when we returned, we always had in our ready room, we had an intelligence officer from the division, a ground officer who picked our brains. And we would give him the latest up-to-date action out there and what we saw. So that would be sent back to division and then filtered down to the fighting units.
Pretty uncomfortable feeling for all of us to know we had a bounty on our head. And it made you think a couple times because not sure where you would've wound up if you were shot down and captured. And we had a couple of close calls where people were shot down. One of my squadron mates, his name was Joe Stone, Captain Stone, was making a low level run south of the Hill 55, about 30 miles south of Da Nang, in that vicinity. On a large in the open ground unit of North Vietnamese that were marching toward the city of Da Nang. And so he made a lot of runs on his own before he brought his attack air in. And in the middle of him running an attack air bombers on them, he was hit apparently on one engine first. So he feathered that on the climb up and then the other engine stopped. So both engines stopped. So he ejected, he and the AO. And unfortunately came down right in among the attacking North Vietnamese. But in the confusion, they didn't know what to do, I guess. Because they were under bombing attack and they were heading north and this and that. But right in the middle of all that chaos, a tent mate of mine in a Huey came by and came in and landed right in the middle of it all. But he couldn't land because of the ground that was there and so forth, the terrain features, plus the fact he didn't have much time, he just swooped in. And the pilot and the AO jumped on the skids of the Huey and he flew out of there with them and got them out of there. But it was a pretty close situation.
But if they'd have captured him, either one, the AO or the FAC, I'm sure they would've gained a lot of intelligence because all the units are known specifically by the crews and the FAC and AO status of the Bronco.
I think the fear of getting shot down and captured is obvious to any pilot in any war, and it has to cross your mind many times and you kind of think of what you would do. One of my wrestling matches was always if I was pretty far to the west of Da Nang in those mountains and so forth. If I was really close to Laos, what would I do? Would I try to trek through the mountains westward and try to make it into Thailand somehow or across a country of unknowns, or should I really try to get back through the lines, the back parts of the infiltrating North Vietnamese troops? And that was a constant concern. So I think at the split moments when that might happen, I think you'd have to make a decision while you're even in the air. Which way should I really try to get out of here? Should I really try to make it back to the South China Sea or should I make it farther inland and find a way there? The other thing that worried you of course, is how much interrogation you might undergo. And I guess one of the things would be that you could always claim and consistently claim this is your first flight and you know nothing. And if you hung to it long enough, maybe they'd give up. Those are some of the things that made you think about as you were flying around with spare time, which was often the case. Just waiting for something to happen until some moments of sheer panic would erupt down below.
I don't know of anybody that was a FAC in my unit, either before my tour in '69 or after, that were captured. I did know of several people that were in helicopters that were captured. But that was in the earlier years of the war and ultimately they were freed in the POW exchange.
There were two paramount things that were in my mind anyway, if not in all the other FACs and AOs minds, and that was if a pilot went down, of course maximum effort was to get them. Or if a helicopter was shot down, there was a twofold attack situation. One is to get the survivors out, the other is to make whomever shot it down pay a price with their life. So those two things did occur when I was over there. One was, we had an OV-10 pilot get boxed into Que Son mountains. Didn't have enough of power to get out after he was making some gunnery runs and controlling some bombing runs upon a large number of North Vietnamese. And he got boxed in the canyon and didn't have the power to get out and recognized it, so he had to eject. So upon ejection, he and the aerial observer went out through the ejection system and a plane crashed into the side of the mountain. And immediately we all heard his beeper. And for approximately, I think it was about two days, we kept hearing his beeper. And so finally we did find him alive and got him out. The aerial observer we were still looking for and kept hearing his beeper. And after some period of time we decided we were going to go in with force because the Marines are going to go find us this remaining Marine one way or the other. So we went in with helicopters and the first wave went in and they got shot up so badly that we had to get them back out and reconstitute and decide whether we'd go back in. And they did go back in and the grunts went in, in the helicopter, searched the area and North Vietnamese made them pay a pretty heavy price firing upon them.
However, they found what looked like a shallow grave and they just knocked the dirt off of it. And it was the aerial observer still in his ejection seat, which indicated he didn't get what we called man seat separation from the seat. He didn't separate from it like it was supposed to automatically work. So he had a malfunctioning seat. And he went in and bounced off the side of a mountain and the North Vietnamese took his .45 survival pistol and took his beeper and were playing games with us for several days with the beeper. And so that's a very sad situation there. But fortunately the FAC got out alive. But with some terrible memories I'm sure of his survival there and escape.
Well sometimes you do lose friends and it does affect you there and many years later. And in the case of one friend of mine, he had spent a tour with me in '65, '66 in helicopters, not in my squadron. But we were tent mates who were close friends and we had flown many years before in the Caribbean, during the Cuban crisis and so forth down there off of carriers and what have you. And his loss impacted... Unfortunately in my case, he was shot down flying a CH-46 helicopter only about 8 to 10 miles away from where I was on a mission. And I heard his voice and I recognized his voice that he was getting shot at and then that he was crashing. And I flew over there in my OV-10 and I saw his CH-46 inverted in a big bomb crater and the North Vietnamese were assaulting it already. But one of the machine gunners who was still alive out the crushed, mangled CH-46 was fending them off, shooting at them and stopping their progress. So I brought some attack air in and after a big battle actually of dropping bombs all over the place and getting rescue CH-46s in there, we did get everybody out. Unfortunately my friend was killed and he was not killed from the impact of the aircraft from what our flight surgeon told us when I returned the base, but he had drowned in the bomb crater that the helicopter was inverted in and he was still strapped in and had drowned.
When you saw your friends... And fortunately there weren't that many right around me that got killed. They were in other squadrons and that. It really impacted on you and you really truly did realize that you may not make it out of here alive. And you got to accept that or not do the job. And that's one thing, you could always quit. You could actually quit and turn your wings in if you really wanted to and not fly again. I don't know of anybody who did it. I know of somebody who thought of doing it and then he changed his mind a little later and then continued on and he was flying helicopters at the time. But I think the fact of life is that the fact that death is near, and I think you ought to be ready for it. Or you're in the wrong business. And I think firemen feel that way. I think firemen, particularly in large cities where they confront pretty dangerous situations in high rise buildings, I think they're well aware that their job could require a loss of life.
One of the questions of course is management of fear. And I think you constantly think that there is an end for you to get out of there. There will be a time when you'll leave or the war will end. And there are periods of cease fires that took place and gave you false senses of security followed by periodic high tense fights, battles. And so I think you go in and out of that feeling of, maybe today you won't make it. And maybe you will. And I think every pilot has got to have felt that. It must have felt that way one time or another that he probably will get shot down today and could get killed or captured. And that is always there in the back of your mind. But on the other hand, you have to have the positive attitude that you're going to get one of them before they get you. So you're out snooping and pooping so to speak, and aggressively so that doesn't happen to you.
Well, one of the questions that does arise is you're confronting a very aggressive enemy. You know what they're up to, you know where they're going, you know what they want to do. They want to capture South Vietnam and make it all a communist country. You know what you're there for. You know the public is not supporting you. It went on for years. And you know that the interest has waned as far as support goes.
But as a military man, particularly in my case as a Marine, I don't think you ever wavered from the fact that you were there doing your job. There were times that you were so frustrated if you saw the local... The home, not local, but home newspapers and saw the front pages of what was said about what we were doing there and shouldn't be there and so forth. That would cause you to say, this is not for me and I should go home. But you hung in there knowing that you were doing your job, your assigned job. And that's what you were getting paid to do. And you were fully aware that long term and overall you were fending off international communists all over around the world, which were pretty precariously attacking all parts of the civilized world at the time.
Most Americans know how restrictive we were operating, and we had many restrictions upon us, including very stringent rules of engagements in the initial stages of the war back in '65 and '66. So you have these mixed feelings of frustration like you didn't accomplish much. On the other hand, you do feel like you did your job and if others politically particularly would've done theirs, the outcome would've been much better and you would feel much better about it. But I think each one who served there, whether he'd be in the ground, on a boat, on a ship, in the air, I think they all felt that they participated in protecting ourselves in the long term. And it eventually turned out that that was the fact. And unfortunately we didn't save the people we went down to save. That was the South Vietnamese because they lost the country to the North. And as a result it was proven to the world what they had to endure and still are enduring. Although hopefully that'll end eventually here as the communist government changes hopefully to a better format for the people.
That was Colonel Robert E. Stoffey. To learn more about Stoffey, check out his book, Fighting to Leave. The link is in the show description.
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