Vietnam Birddog Pilots Contribution
A group of young pilots and enlisted men arrived at Fort Hood, Texas in January of 1966 to form an elite Army Aviation Reconnaissance Company. The pilots were mostly ROTC lieutenants with a few Citadel, OCS, and West Point graduates. There were a few grizzled sergeants among the crew chiefs, but many of the enlisted men were on their first or second tours.
The officers and enlisted men were from every region of the United States. They were preparing to embark into unknown territory to fight a war that they did not fully understand. These young men were a product of the 1950’s. Their thoughts were not too far removed from hot rod Fords and 1957 Chevys, sock hops, drive-in movies, and goodnight night kisses. Most were dedicated soldiers that were determined to serve their country proudly, some reluctantly, and others ambivalently. They would be asked to fight a war that family, college roommates, or fellow workers would come to question before they returned home. They all had dreams and plans, but those would have to wait.
The one common denominator among these men was the love of flying and their pride in keeping aircraft flight ready. The challenge of maintaining and flying 1950 vintage aircraft in a harsh environment united this disparate group into a close knit unit, determined to survive.
On May 14, 1966, the 183rd Aviation Company departed Fort Hood, Texas for Vietnam via rail and aboard the USNS Gordon. The USNS Gordon sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge at 1600 on 16 May and arrived in Vietnam on 7 June. The Company Headquarters was established at Dong Ba Thin on June 8, 1966.
A Typical Day
Imagine a two-man patrol in Vietnam hunting for the enemy every day in a hundred square mile area. Familiar with the terrain, familiar with the weather, familiar with the friendly units and villages, the patrol is quick to note a change; the enemy is somewhere in the area. To their discerning eyes the clues appear; the farmer quit harvesting rice; no children play in the village; water buffalo, ducks, chickens go untended; a wire crosses a highland rice paddy from jungle to jungle; sunlight catches the yellow straw corner of a roof in triple canopy jungle; elephant tracks cross a coastal rice paddy; wisps of one hundred smoke fires filter up through the jungle; an old green footpath beaten brown from a thousand sandals; a new bamboo footbridge crosses a mountain stream. The patrol continues the search, hunting in all weathers, like a bird-dog in the field.
For this patrol, indeed, is a light fixed wing airplane (O-1, L-19) flown by an Army reconnaissance pilot with an observer. It is simply called “Bird-dog.” As they crisscross the coastal valley at 300 feet, a “sucker-hole” opens on the western ridge line. They call a second Bird-dog, circle-climb below the Monsoon clouds and slip through the saddle at 800 ft, slowly pull off the power, drop some flaps and glide down the slope into the An Lao Valley.
THERE THEY ARE. Rifles at stack arms. Running for cover. Diving into the river. We attack with four runs of HE rockets. Observers shooting M-16s out the window. Two dead are spotted along the tree line; one dead in the river; more dead and wounded in the trees. Small arms fire picks up on the last run. We pull away and head down the valley, under the clouds, over the village. All hell-fire breaks loose. Pop, cracks and heavy crump, crump, crump with green tracer. Bird-dogs break right and left up into the scud. No hits. They are too far away for artillery or naval gunfire. No gun ships in the area. We call an Air Force FAC. We brief him in the air. He calls another FAC for radio relay to the south. F-4 bombers launch from Cam Ranh —three flights of two. They let down through 1000 foot clouds over the ocean. The FAC guides them to the coast, follow the river, hit the smoke at the village, climb straight up through the low ceiling, out of the valley and the next flight makes a pass. The Bird-dogs make one more low, slow pass across the area. No ground fire from the village or valley area- not for months.
The Bird-dogs follow the river and glide over the coastal lowlands until on the horizon, two familiar, ragged hills appear like old friends silhouetted in the dim yellow glow of the fading evening light. The static of the radio breaks the silence, “Seahorse xx, one mile west for landing.” “Roger xx, you are cleared for landing on runway 35.” The lieutenants maneuvered the Bird-dogs into the downwind pattern; turned on final, pulled back the throttle, lowered 45 degrees of flaps, nudged the nose up, and felt the aircraft mushing downward. The tall elephant grass off the end of the runway gently waves as the tail-wheels touch down in the first 25 feet of the runway. The aircraft taxi in one behind the other. As they tied down the aircraft, the crew chiefs conduct a post-flight inspection of the aircraft and give the mechanics instructions. The lieutenants drop gear in their hootch and stop by Operations for debriefing. They carefully log 6 hours in their logbook and then make their way down a narrow sidewalk past a long row of hootches to the Officers Club to wash away some of the memories of the day. A day like many that they will survive.
Somewhere in South Vietnam, Army Bird-dog pilots were engaging the enemy every day: the local Viet Cong; main force VC battalions; North Vietnamese regiments; NVA sappers; North Korean sappers. They coordinated all of the friendly elements every day and provided support for:
RVN Army observers.
U.S. Advisors working with RVN units.
Special Forces observers.
U.S. Corps of Engineers.
U.S. Army Intelligence Advisors.
U.S. Navy Intelligence Officers and Swift Boat Operations.
U.S. Maine Corps gunnery liaison Officers and NCOs.
U.S. Advisors to ROK Army Units.
U.S. Artillery observers.
U.S. Air Force FACS.
Direct Support of Special Operations (e.g. 1st Cav. and 4th Infantry)
U.S. Advisors to RFPF.
Red Cross , Army Nurses, and Doughnut Dollies
Convoy control for U.S. transportation units.
FAC for U.S. helicopter gunships.
The Bird-dog units were unique—deployed to Vietnam as companies, re-`deployed tactically as platoons to cover the country. In the annals of the U.S. military, no other reconnaissance units have had the breath and depth of mission. If higher command or the province Chief really wanted to know what was going on in the An Loa Valley, ask the Bird-dog pilots flying in their region. On any given day, anywhere in Vietnam, if MACV or ARVN really wanted reconnaissance intelligence in a given hundred square miles, ask the Bird-dog pilots. They seldom did. The intelligence reports went into a bureaucratic meat-grinder with no feedback.
There was positive feedback in the field from Special Forces commanders, U.S. Advisors, ARVN commanders, Air Force FACS Navy intelligence officers, Marine Corps gunnery officers, and gunship pilots. They appreciated the missions and the risk. And most of all, they appreciated the payoff; timely, visually confirmed intelligence, aggressive attacks disrupting the enemy plans and movement; kill ratios of 50:0 for a few weeks of Bird-dog platoon actions.
Technology has passed the Bird-dog by; however, the combat challenge of “immortal youth” coordinating a battle, using two FM radios, and a UFH radio--with Army gunships in the queue to attack, artillery and naval on call, Air Force FACS standing by, and with U. S. advisors on the ground. The thrill of flying at 500 feet, with green tracers burning by, shall certainly never come again for those of us who were there.
Vietnam was a thinking man’s war. The Bird-dog pilots, by their perseverance, humor, courage and experience were the most thoughtful and critical soldiers of that war—every day—they had to be. It was not taught, it was learned the hard way. “Every day” did not just happen. And most importantly the sergeants and our enlisted men made it all happen. Five aircraft flying the missions for eight. Turn- around time was twelve hours at night for the next day’s mission. Rearmament, refueling, inspections, scrounging parts, communications, paperwork, flying “shotgun,” and the toughest job of all—good morale; it came from the bottom up. The chain that stretched upward for the swift and adventurous wing was only as strong as its weakest link.
Written in honor of all those who served in the 183rd Reconnaissance Airplane Company in Vietnam. Submitted 18 September 2002 in preparation for the first 183rd Reunion, October 17-20, 2002 at Fort Rucker.
Report prepared by Col. John C. Philbrick & Dr. Hiram D. Johnston,
Pictures by Richard L. Kloppenburg