FAC Rescue Mission in Laos

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UPDATED: 28 Dec 04

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FAC Rescue Mission in Laos

by

Bill Townsley

Yorktown, VA 

A FAC Story from Vietnam/Laos


"The Essence of Forward Air Controlling"

This story is about a Special Operations Group (SOG) team. These were what we also called "road watch teams, " but they did more missions like search for previously downed airmen, POW camps, enemy command posts, and just about anything that the Intelligence Community wanted to know. They were inserted by helicopter quickly and without fanfare, whenever possible. I used to run "dummy" air strikes and/or fly circles over and shoot off one or two of my 14 'willy pete' (WP or white phosphorus) rockets into another nearby area to make cover up noise in an attempt to draw attention away from the area where we planned to helicopter insert a 6 to 10 man SOG team.

This is about one such team that got in trouble someplace in Laos. It was sometime in July or Aug of 1969. I had not been a part of the effort to insert them, i.e., they were not one of "my" teams. It all starts with one of the enlisted 20 TASS (Tactical Air Support Squadron) Operations Specialists knocking on the door of my Q room at about 4 a.m.
"Sir, we need you to fly a Prairie Fire." I never turned down any opportunity to fly, especially a Prairie Fire. He drove me to Operations about a mile and a half away.
"Thereís a team in trouble in the vicinity ofÖ" (I couldnít tell you where now, and the area was new to me then). "Youíre to take off as soon as possible and to meet up with (I think it was) Nail 08. Heís was a night FAC out of NKP (Thailand). Heís not Prairie Fire qualified, but he has contact with a team in trouble."

I was probably airborne by 4:45 or 5 a.m. Shortly after takeoff, I contacted "Moonbeam," the Airborne Command and Control Center (ABCCC) C-130 that flew the night shift of 12 hours high over Laos. The day shift ABCCCís callsign was "Hillsboro." Moonbeam put me on frequency with the Nail FAC.

"Nail 08, this is Covey 264, inbound youíre location," I said.

"Roger, Covey. Iíve been getting this round-eye (no offense meant, but thatís what we called Americans then for some coding purposes) on ĎFox Mikeí (FM radio, and he gave me the frequency). He comes up about every 10 minutes and just calls for help. He says heís running, he sounds out of breath, and he wants help. I can barely understand him. He wonít stay on the radio long enough for me to ask him any questions. I have no idea where he is, except that Iím in his area because this is where I stayed once I heard him come up."

The Nail had literally been working in the dark, and so finding a SOG team at night would have been next to impossible anyway. Light was breaking and I could begin to make out terrain features on the ground.

The SOG team leader had a callsign I donít remember. Iím going to call him Lucky from now on. We seldom use it after the first contact, if itís continuous. We just talk like weíre on a telephone, with none of that "Over, Wilco, Over and out, and This isÖ" stuff.
After taking the briefing from Nail, I told him I was on-scene. We visually found each other. I came in a thousand feet higher than he said he was. Once we had each other in sight, we passed on-scene control to me.

"I have it." and we traded holding altitudes.  Somewhere in here, Lucky called and everything went just as the Nail FAC had previously briefed. I tried to talk to Lucky, but he went off line too fast. I got the same mental picture that Nail had briefed. Nail asked permission to stick around for a few minutes to observe and I let him.

I called Moonbeam and asked them what firepower was immediately available. Moonbean said they had a AC-119 that was about 15 or 20 minutes from my location. The "Dollar 19," or "Shadow" as we called them had a mounted side firing 7.62 mm Gattling guns capable of firing up to 6,000 rounds per minute per gun.

I had seen a AC-130 "Specter" and the AC-47 "Puff, the Magic Dragon" work out around DaNang at night, so I understood their firepower capability. I also knew they were accurate and that the TIC (troop-in-contact) clearance was 25 meters.

"Bring him on, Moonbeam, Iím declaring a Prairie Fire. See if you can get me some A-1s or "Gunfighters" with "snake and nape" (F-4s with the more accurate 500 pound high drag bombs and napalm) Just keep them on alert."

Lucky came up again. Still, I couldnít get him to remain on long enough to ask him a question. He was just running and running and wanted help.
I waited and waited, trying every minute or so to contact him. About the time that I figured he would be coming up again, I kept up a steady stream of talk.

"Lucky, Lucky, this is Covey. I need to find you, can you hear my Oscar Duck?" (our nickname for the O-2)? I kept repeating this, pausing only briefly for him to come up. I was hoping that as he brought the phone-like microphone to his ear, that he would hear me ask him questions.

About this time, Moonbeam came up on victor (VHF radio) telling me that Shadow was coming my way. At the same time, "Shadow 21" is checking in on my Uniform (UHF radio). We controlled who we talked to on which radio, uniform, victor or fox mike with a little turn knob, like on an stove or air conditioner, and we controlled the volume of each radio with smaller turn knobs on that same panel)

Before I could answer either, up pops Lucky, "I think I can hear you, but I donít know where I am. We just being chased." And he was off line again. Again, I couldnít get him to answer. While he was talking on fox mike, I could "home in" on his location via a needle in the cockpit. It didnít tell me how far he was away, it would only give me a direction. I decided to head in his direction about a mile and take up another orbit. I acknowledged the arrival of Shadow, giving him an arrival or above altitude, and I just said "Roger, got him" to Moonbeam. I was trying to get into my maps to figure out where I was Laos, but it was taking too much time, and it rally didnít matter for now.

Then I started repeating again and again, "Lucky, this is Covey, can you hear my aircraft and what direction are you running? After another 3 or 4 minutes of continuing to repeat this question, he finally came back, "I hear you louder, I donít know what direction Iím running."
I quickly said, "The Sun is rising in the East." He came back, "Oh yeah. OK, Covey, Iím running South. Weíre being chased by at least a company." To me, that meant his squad was outnumbered at least 3 to one, and probably more like 5 to 1. And, once again, that was it for awhile. The reader has to appreciate that Lucky is talking on the radio while running through the jungle and heís panting the whole time.

During this break, I begin talking to Shadow and started to tell him what my plan was. I hoped to try and spot Lucky and go to work for him. But in the jungle coverage I was looking at, I didnít see how we were ever going to see him. Once we spotted him, letís remember heís running South. "Roger South, Covey." Somewhere in all of the chatter, I gave Shadow the fox mike frequency so he was listening to everything that was going on between Lucky and me. Lucky pops up again, "Covey, weíre still running, I can hear you nearly overhead."

"Pop a smoke, pop a smoke, pop a smoke," I repeated.

"What? Charlie will see me!" Lucky yelled back.

"Hell, he already chasing you so he knows where you are. Pop a smoke, keep running, and when your 25 yards South, tell me the color."

"Shit, here goes. Iím popping and running."

I asked Shadow to be looking for some smoke coming up through the jungle canopy. He said "Roger."

After about 30 seconds, I saw very dispersed wisps of red smoke coming up through the trees. I started to point it out to Shadow, but he interrupted saying "I got it, Covey."
About a minute later, Lucky comes back on and says, "Iím 25 meters South of my red smoke."

"Keep on running, Lucky."

"Shadow, cleared hot on the red smoke and North for 1 minute."

"Roger"

For the next minute, Shadow unloaded about 6,000 rounds into the area of the smoke and a little North of it.

"Shadow, fly off about 2 or 3 miles. Iím doing the same. We need him to be able to hear whatís going on down there."

We waited for what seemed like an eternity. It was taking so long, that I thought we had killed the good guys. The seconds were ticking away.

The next thing we heard was, "Hereís another red smoke." Then nothing.
I brought Shadow back over the area.

There comes the signs of new red smoke through the trees.

Then "Covey, Iím 25 meters South."

"Shadow, cleared hot!"

"Roger!"

Another minute of hell on Earth for the bad guys, whoever there were, and however many of them there were.

I then told Shadow to get clear of the area again, and I did the same. Heíd already moved away, but I wasnít watching him.

"Covey, that is shit hot. I donít hear anything anymore." Came the long awaited radio call from Lucky.

"Good, now what do you want? You want to stay, or you want out."

"We need to get out. Can you get me to an LZ (landing zone)?"

"Roger, I see one. Iím going over your position high overhead, but offset some. When I tell you, you need to go toward the sound of my a/c about 500 meters. Thereís a good LZ there.

"Thatíll take us the rest of the day."

"Thatís the best I see in the area. "

"Roger"

"Iíll brief the boys back home to be ready with strings later on the afternoon." That meant Iíd debrief SOG command to have another Prairie Fire FAC with rescue Hueyís and Cobra gunships ready for an extraction. The Hueyís would have 100 foot ropes (strings) to lower to Luckyís team to pull or carry them to safety. Sometimes they had to travel many miles dangling from the end of the string.

"Roger, Covey, I owe ya."

"Me and Shadow. Weíll see you, out" I replied.

"Shadow, well done. Outstanding how you were on top of everything before I even had to say anything."

"Roger, good job," he said back.

"Roger that. Felt good, didnít it?"

"Moonbeam, this is Covey 264 RTB (returning to base)."

Covey, this is Hillsboro, Moonbeam RTBíd an hour ago. We monitored all. Understand RTB, good job."

That story, which Iíve told many time, but never in this detail, to me epitomizes the essence of being a Forward Air Controller.

Youíre called out of bed to save somebody. Who, what when and where? You go out there not knowing much about whatís going on. You donít know their location, nor the terrain elevation.  You canít see either the good guys or the bad guys.  You take whatever firepower you can get. And it doesn't have to be A-1As, or F-4s or F-105s.  You find the good guys and you start shooting hoping your hitting only the bad guys.  You hit the bad guys, you save the good guys.

What more could you ask for?

 

Other stories:
1. Searching for shot up and very lost SOG team and pointing them in the right direction.
2. Night recovery of a 10 man Prairie Fire team badly injured but alive following a UH-1 helicopter crash. Flew 12 hours over 15 hour time frame.

 


 
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