01 Feb Tales from The Iron Triangle: Rolling Hot
Operation Junction City, March, 1967
Republic of South Vietnam
“Railway Five! Railway Five! The VC (Viet Cong) were not in the village! I say again, the VC were not in Lao Cai village!”
“What?” yelled the pilot into his helmet mounted radio. “Damn it, Iron Hand! You said the VC had occupied that village!”
There was a second of silence as static noise crackled over the radio frequency. “Answer me, Iron Hand!” yelled the US Air Force F4 Phantom fighter pilot. “Was that the VC I just cooked back there or were those civilians?”
“Railway Five,” came the response after another pause. “Company sized VC element is half a klick (kilometer) southeast of Lao Cai village, attempting to flee into the jungles headed south. Will mark with smoke!”
“Damn it!” yelled the pilot as he yanked the stick of his fighter to the left, banking his ungainly F4 fighter into as tight a turn as it could muster and applied throttle to reverse course to head back to Lai Cai village as quickly as possible before the VC escaped.
“Shit!” said the radar intercept officer, or RIO (rio), sitting directly behind the pilot. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”
Both the F4’s pilot and his back seat RIO were tense and agitated, not wanting to think about the horrific mistake which they have just made, much less speak about it. The pilot, Captain William “Foxhound” Blake, leveled his wings after his fighter emerged from under the cloud back while continuing his slight decent, trying to ignore the sight of the burning South Vietnamese farming village that was off to his one o’clock position. The village which he had just incinerated with napalm moments ago.
The FAC (fak- forward air control) aircraft was a small, propeller driven Cessna O-2 Skymaster which mounted pods of smoke rockets under its wings. The FAC’s job was to locate VC positions then fire the smoke rockets to mark the targets for the faster moving fighter bombers like Captain Blake’s F4 Phantom. The small FAC Cessna orbited lazily over the target area, circling a plume of red smoke rising from the jungle where the air controller marked where he wanted the Phantom to drop its payload of napalm.
“Rolling hot!” said Captain Blake grimly, as he positioned his fighter for his attack run, aiming for the smoke marker fired by the FAC. The roaring F4 Phantom pulled up slightly, the sound of the twin jet engines tearing through the sky as two silver canisters fell from underneath the wings. Immediately, the ground below the fighter jet erupted in a rolling sea of flaming, jellied gasoline and billowing black smoke which was hotter than lava and refused to be extinguished until everything it its path was nothing but ash. Captain Blake felt little satisfaction as he pulled up from his attack run. His RIO, Captain Richard Guzman, looked over his shoulder at the expanding sea of flame below them and said, “Good hit, Foxhound. That struck dead center.”
Captain Blake’s throat was dry, and he felt an increasing sense of dread as he banked his Phantom north towards the sprawling Bien Hoa Air Base that his tactical fighter squadron called home. Neither he nor his RIO spoke a word on the short fight back to the base, each alone in their thoughts of a tragic mistake which they might have made and praying to God that it wasn’t so. Blake could not get the picture of the burning village out of his mind, as his brain kept replaying over and over again the split second that he released his ordinance over the village. As he pulled up, he caught a fleeting glimpse of people below him. They were supposed to be VC! They were supposed to be the fucking Communist Viet Cong!
Captain Blake sat alone at the bar inside the crowded Bien Hoa Officer’s Club, nursing his fifth rum and Coke of the evening that the pretty little Vietnamese bar girl Quan Lyn, had given to him. The juke box seemed to be playing the same three songs: “Light My Fire” by the Doors, “Somethin’ Stupid” by Frank and Nancy Sinatra, and “Groovin” by the Young Rascals. But as “Kind Of A Drag” by the Buckinghams began to play, Blake’s mind drifted back to earlier in the day when he and his RIO were in the squadron’s ready room with the squadron commander, Major Keating, and the squadron operations officer, Captain Rasmussen, during the after action mission debriefing.
“They weren’t main force VC fighters,” said Major Keating. “But they were VC sympathizers. Why else would they have let the VC store so much food and ordinance in their village?”
“You and I both know that’s a crock of bullshit that the psyche head shrinker guys like to say to us in order to keep us sane,” said Blake. “Those people I killed today were innocent farmers. Damn it!”
“He’s right, sir,” added Guzman. “If they were VC sympathizers, why did the VC prevent them from leaving the village?”
Major Keating folded his arms and nodded, looking down to the floor. He sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. The VC more than likely forced them to stay for the propaganda value.”
“Look, gentlemen,” said the operations officer Captain Rasmussen. “You and I both know that we are fighting a fucked up war. This isn’t like World War Two and Korea where we had lines of advance and retreat and we knew who the fucking good guys were and who the fucking bad guys were. Here, the VC and the NVA are out to fuck all of us and honest mistakes, though tragic, are going to happen.”
“You’re not the one who dropped the nape on those civilians, Ras,” said Captain Blake.
Captain Rasmussen sighed, “No, I did not. And I pray to God that I never will feel the same way that you do now, buddy.”
“You two aren’t murderers,” said Major Keating. “The fact that you feel so much remorse about what happened today proves it. VC orchestrated everything that happened at Lao Cai village and they won a propaganda victory. We just need to be more careful in the future.”
“Still doesn’t feel right, sir,” said Guzman, shaking his head.
“War should never feel right, son,” said Keating. “Now, I know that we’re in the middle of Operation Junction City, but I want you two to take the next few days off to relax and refocus. I’ll need you guys back on the ramp in three days ready to go. Understand?”
“Yes sir,” replied Blake and Guzman in unison. They had been partners for the past six months flying in the same bird and had gotten to know each other’s mannerisms and habits quite well. Though they had dissimilar backgrounds, they worked well as a team.
“Good,” said Major Keating. “Captain Rasmussen, take Blake and Guzman off the mission schedule for the next three days.”
At the end of the duty day, Captain Guzman, a devout Catholic, showered and changed to go to the base chapel and pray his troubles away. Captain Blake hit the Officers Club to drink his away. The alcohol wasn’t doing it for Blake and he hoped that Guzman was having better luck. An Air Force major wearing an unusual green and olive tiger striped uniform and sporting a thick, handlebar moustache approached Blake from behind. “Is this stool taken, Captain Blake?”
Blake turned to see the FAC pilot and scooted over. “Have a seat Major Kyle.”
Captain Blake had worked with Major Michael Kyle as his FAC in the past. In fact, it was Major Kyle who was the FAC in this last mission. A FAC’s job wasn’t easy, flying low and slow hunting for the VC over territory where enemy bullets rose high and quick. As expected, FACs tended to get shot down a lot, hence the need for the nontraditional flying uniform.
“Can I buy your next round, Captain Blake?” said Major Kyle.
“You don’t have to, Mike,” said Blake. “In fact, can I buy you a drink?”
Major Kyle chuckled humorlessly. “I take full responsibility for what happened today. I saw the VC enter the village, but I didn’t see them leave until it was too late.”
“It’s those damned tunnels that they dig,” said Blake. “They can appear and disappear like they were ghosts.” Blake finished his drink and instead of signaling the bartender, Blake turned and signaled to his favorite bar girl Quan Lyn for two more rounds of rum and Coke.
“I’m sorry, man,” said Major Kyle. “It was my fault. You dropped the nape, but it was my fault.”
“You can’t blame yourself for what the VC did, Mike,” said Blake, trying to be strong for his friend but seeing a flashback in his mind of the people he killed just before he pulled up from his attack. “This is a fucked up war and the enemy are going to force us to make mistakes in a fight where we have to be absolutely perfect or else we lose the hearts and minds of the people.”
Captain Blake felt a gentle touch on his shoulders and heard a soft voice speak, “Mister William, here are your drinks.”
Blake loved it when Quan Lyn called him Mister William instead of Captain Blake. For a fleeting second, it made him feel as if he weren’t stuck in the middle of a fucked up war. He turned to see Quan Lyn, her face melting, her serving tray resting on skeletal hands where the flesh had peeled away. Quan Lyn’s long beautiful black hair had been burned to a crisp and her right eye dangled down out of her skull by a strip of muscle. Quan Lyn’s skimpy pink uniform had been burned away, revealing a charred blackened rib cage. As she smiled, the flesh on her face finally melted away revealing the charcoal colored skull beneath. Blake could smell the reek of burning fuel coming from her. “Mister William,” the thing said sweetly. “Your drinks?”
Blake yelped and fell backwards off his stool, trying to back away from the hideous monstrosity that stood before him. Major Kyle got up from his seat, reaching down to help Blake to get back on his feet. “Hey, buddy! Are you okay?” said Major Kyle.
Blake just scrambled back more, hitting his back against the bar as the burning, skeletal thing that used to be Major Kyle reached down at him with claw-like hands. Blake closed his eyes and turned his head, throwing his arms up protectively over his face.
“Hey, Bill. I think it’s time for you to head back to your living quarters.”
Blake opened his eyes and stared up, blinking his eyes until they focused. Major Kyle and Quan Lyn were looking down at him with worried expressions on their faces. The Officer’s Club had gone quiet of all conversations as the other patrons stopped to stare at the typical cocky fighter jock pilot who fell off his bar stool because he couldn’t handle his liquor. “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane was playing on the juke box. Captain Blake allowed Major Kyle to help him up.
“Are you okay, Bill?” said Kyle. “Geezus, man, you are drenched in sweat! Do you need help walking to your hooch?”
“I’m… fine, Mike. Thanks.” said Blake, handing over seven dollars to Quan Lyn to cover the drinks and the tip.
“Bill,” said Major Kyle.
“I’m good, Mike,” Blake said again. “I’ll be able to make it back to my hooch.”
The conversation started up in the club again as Captain Blake left the Officer’s Club. Major Kyle waited a few moments, finishing his rum and Coke before following Blake out the door. The FAC pilot stood just inside the entrance of the club watching to make sure that Captain Blake would be okay getting to his living quarters. Major Kyle was wracked with guilt. “This was all my fault,” Major Kyle thought. “I should have known that the VC would pull that stunt. I should have known that the VC would trick us into attacking a village full of helpless civilians. Now he has to live with my mistake.”
Major Kyle looked down, then entered the Officer’s Club, the Door’s “Light My Fire” playing again on the juke box.
The showers had been cold, but Blake didn’t mind. Captain Blake stared at his reflection in one of the mirrors which lined the shower room.
“What happened back there,” he thought. “I know I’m not drunk. I can handle twice what I drank. Was it a hallucination? It couldn’t have been! I could smell their burning flesh!”
A Vietnamese girl in her early twenties appeared in the mirror behind him and Blake spun around, holding his towel around his waist. “Hey! Hey! Hey, now!” he said. “It’s a little late in the evening to be cleaning the showers, don’t you think?”
The Vietnamese girl simply stared at him. She must have been new because Captain Blake didn’t recognize her.
“Well, come to think of it,” said Blake. “This probably is the best time to clean the shower stalls. I’m done here so I’ll get out of your way. Sorry.”
Throwing on a clean white t-shirt, Blake stepped around the young lady and made to leave. However, before he opened the door to the shower stalls, he wondered why the girl was dressed as a farming peasant and smelled slightly of fuel. He turned to look back at her, but she was gone.
Back at his hooch, Blake put on a pair of shorts and climbed into his rack. He shared his room with his RIO, Captain Guzman, who apparently was still at the chapel praying. Outside, he could hear the hustle and bustle of the flight line. The war was going on twenty-four hours, and even though it was night, the roar of American F4 Phantoms and F105 Thunderchiefs launching on night missions could be heard. Blake lay in his rack, looking up at the light bulb on the ceiling but only seeing Lao Cai village being lit up like a torch. Over and over again in his mind, he relived that one fleeting moment when he saw the villagers running right before they died.
All of a sudden, the loud scream of alarm sirens split the air as the base rumbled and shook with the CRUMP-CRUMP-CRUMP sounds of incoming mortar rounds. The sounds of machine gun fire echoed in the distance accompanied by the sounds of yelling and running feet. The VC were attacking the base, and by the sounds of it, they were attacking in force. Captain Blake jumped to his feet and, dressed only in white boxer shorts and a white t-shirt, ran from his living quarters outside to the nearest bunker.
As he stepped outside, he was met by a scene of pure and utter devastation. The flight line was demolished by the VC mortars as American fighter planes and C130 transports were wrecked and ablaze. The hangers and control tower were also on fire and the aviation fuel depot exploded. Ordinance detonated, turning the night into a hellish deep orange and everywhere Blake looked, hundreds of American servicemen ran and screamed, their bodies engulfed in flames.
Standing outside in just his t-shirt and shorts, Blake was the only person on the base who was not engulfed in flames. The hundreds, no, thousands of emolliated Americans turned to Captain Blake, begging and pleading for him to put out the fire.
“No!” screamed Blake as the burning mass of people drew closer. “No! No, I can’t!” screamed Blake. The burning Americans reached out to him, pleading for help. Their flesh had been burned away, reducing them to little more than shambling skeletons. “I’m sorry! I can’t! I can’t! I’m sorry!”
“Bill! Bill! Wake up!”
Blake opened his eyes as Guzman shook him awake.
“Bill, geez, are you okay? Good, Lord, Bill. You’re having a bad dream.”
Blake looked up to see Guzman standing over his bed. The lights in the hooch had been turned off so that only the illumination from the ramp lights outside shone.
“Yeah,” said Blake, rubbing his eyes. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Bill, you were yelling in your sleep. You were yelling that you were sorry,” said Guzman. “What were you dreaming?”
“I really can’t remember,” said Blake, slipping on a pair of grey sweat pants. “I’m… I’m going to take a little walk to clear my head.”
“Okay, Bill,” said Guzman. “Hey, I’ll be up if you want to talk.”
“Yeah, man,” said Blake. “Thanks.”
Blake stepped out into the cool, quiet night. It was pleasant, the air not being particularly humid. And aside from the occasional illumination flare being fired from the base perimeter, one could be fooled into thinking there wasn’t a war occurring out there. Captain Blake walked to the nearest concrete bunker and, sitting alone in the darkness, put his hands to his face and cried.
“Here you go!”
Blake awoke to see Guzman standing over him, a paper plate piled high with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and slices of fruit in his right hand, a cup of orange juice in his left. Blake looked around, seeing that it was now morning and he was still inside the bunker.
“I came looking for you when you didn’t come back last night,” said Guzman. “I found you sleeping here. You seemed comfortable, so I didn’t bother to wake you.”
“Thank you,” said Blake, suddenly realizing how hungry he was. He gratefully accepted the plate of food, saying, “Goose, you’re my RIO, not my mom. You don’t have to take care of me!”
“The hell I don’t!” said Guzman. “You’re the stick jockey on the Phantom. I’m just the guy in back. If you don’t get home, I don’t get home!”
Blake and Guzman sat in the bunker for a while, talking about everything except Lao Cai village. Guzman’s family immigrated to America from Mexico and, like many new patriotic immigrants, Richard Guzman wanted to prove his pride and love for his new country by serving in her armed forces. And despite being a devout Catholic, he admitted to despising the white, college liberals who had no idea how privileged they were to be living in America and who were protesting in the streets and burning down their cities at the behest of their Communist masters.
For his part, Blake spoke about how his father was a fighter pilot in World War Two, flying P38 Lightnings in the same squadron as famed American ace Major Richard Ira Bong. His father fought the Japanese in the South Pacific campaigns and then again fought the Communists as an F86 Sabre pilot in Korea. Blake followed in his father’s footsteps, first flying as an F102 Delta Dagger pilot before transitioning into the F4 Phantom. He wanted to serve his country, just as his father did before him. But this war… this war was different from all the previous ones. This one was just fucked. And America, with all of its overwhelming military might, just wasn’t prepared to fight in a fucked up war.
The next night, the VC did hit the runway at Bien Hoa with rockets, but the two craters which the rockets had created were very quickly repaired. That was the only significant event that occurred during Blake’s time off and two days later, Blake and Guzman were back on the mission schedule, Blake looking rested and refreshed from the few days rest and recuperation that he had been afforded.
The mission that day was a CAP (cap), or close air support mission. Several companies of the Army’s 1st Infantry and 25th Infantry Divisions would be pushing into the Iron Triangle, into a valley which Army intelligence said that the entire VC 375th Infantry Regiment and 399th Heavy Weapons Battalion had been staging. The American infantry commanders had requested air support, and several flights of fighters had been allocated. As the infantry units pushed into the heavily fortified VC valley, two F4 Phantoms, one piloted by Captain Blake and one piloted by Captain Rasmussen, would be orbiting overhead, while Major Kyle would provide the FAC support. Several helicopters had been shot down in the valley previously, and American intelligence surmised that the VC had emplaced heavy anti-aircraft guns in the hills surrounding the valley.
“How’re you feeling, Foxhound?” said Guzman, as the fighter pilots suited up and prepped for their mission in the squadron’s ready room.
Blake, looking refreshed after a night of undisturbed and nightmare free rest, replied, “I feel like I can take on the entire VC army by myself, Goose!”
With pre-flight checks completed, the two mighty US Air Force F4 Phantom fighters thundered down the Bien Hoa runway, their twin afterburning engines launching the two fighter-bombers into the mid-morning sky.
“Alright, alright, alright!” announced Major Kyle from his propeller driven Cessna FAC plane. “Let’s see what Mister Victor is up to, today!” He circled over the valley as dozens of American UH1 Huey helicopters dropped hundreds of 1st Infantry and 25th Infantry soldiers into landing zones all across the valley. Immediately, the American soldiers began diving into the jungle searching for the Communist insurgents.
The fighter pilots didn’t have to wait long for the call for help as, less than thirty minutes after they arrived on station, an infantry company from the 25th Infantry Division began screaming over the radio for help.
“Pinned down! Pinned down! Pinned down!” yelled the American infantry company commander over the radio. “We got VC heavy automatic weapons fire from the hills west and north of our position! Looks like they have fucking 23mm cannons dug into the side of the mountains! We need air support now!”
“I see you,” said Major Kyle from his FAC aircraft. “I’m rolling hot!”
Major Kyle pushed left on the stick, pulling his little propeller driven aircraft into a steep dive while firing smoke rockets at the enemy targets. FWOOSH-FWOOSH-FWOOSH! The smoke marking rockets launched from their pods under the Cessna’s wings and impacted into the firing positions of the deadly VC 23mm anti-aircraft cannons. As Major Kyle pulled up and away, he yelled, “Targets marked! Come get ‘em, boys!”
All of a sudden, Major Kyle’s Cessna erupted in a ball of flames as VC cannon fire reached up from the hillsides beside him and struck his plane. The burning little Cessna tumbled into the jungle below, exploding in a ball of flames.
“Rolling hot!” announced Captain Blake as he armed his ordinance and dived towards the hill side aiming for the VC 23mm auto-cannons. He leveled out his wings, barely registering Major Kyle’s FAC aircraft slamming into the jungle below him. All of a sudden, the images of dozens of Vietnamese villagers filled Blake’s canopy, obstructing his forward sight. The villagers stared at him with malice and hatred as they began to be engulfed in flames. The smell of burning gasoline filled the cockpit, the acrid smoke blinding Blake with tears as he stared transfixed at the burning apparitions before him. Soon, the entire cockpit was engulfed in a choking black smoke which smelled of burning gasoline.
“Pull up! Pull up! Pull up!” yelled Guzman. “We’re too low!”
The burning villagers vanished and the smell of burning fuel disappeared, replaced by the horrifying view of the earth coming up quickly to meet them. Blake instinctively yanked back on the stick, pulling his F4 Phantom out of its dive before it slammed into the side of the hill. But as Blake pulled the Phantom into a tight right bank, the belly of the jet was exposed to the Viet Cong 23mm antiaircraft guns. The big American fighter jet shuddered and bucked, spewing smoke and flames as it was hit by several high explosive rounds fired by the VC antiaircraft cannons below it. Blake’s F4 Phantom plunged to the valley, spewing flames and black smoke behind it as it slid into a field of tall reeds.
Captain Rasmussen was flying as Blake’s wingman and dived on the VC gun positions, dropping his ordinance on the enemy which had just shot down his partner. The VC 23mm cannons disappeared in a flaming cloud of black and red napalm. Captain Rasmussen pulled up and banked his fighter around to the left, looking down over his shoulder as Captain Blake’s burning Phantom skid into a wide open field of tall reeds below him.
“Goose! Guzeman are you okay?” Blake unhooked his restraints and popped his canopy open. However, as he attempted to climb out of his seat, he screamed out in agony. Looking down he saw that the pants of his green flight suit was stained a deep red, bone sticking out of his legs. Taking off his helmet, Blake called to Guzeman again.
“Goose, I can’t move. You have to get out of here before the fucking VC get here! Goose! Do you hear me?”
Painfully, Blake shifted his shoulders, craning his head to look behind him. The RIO station was awash with blood and what was left of Guzman was slumped over. A 23mm round had penetrated under the RIO’s seat and almost cut him in half.
“Oh, Goose,” whispered Blake. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
All of a sudden, AK47 rounds stitched the sides of the downed Phantom. Blake turned to his left to see about twenty to thirty Viet Cong soldiers emerge from the tree line at the base of the hill two hundred meters away, smiling and yelling excitedly. They ran towards his ruined fighter, cheering and celebrating as they approached.
“Ras, are you there?” said Blake.
“I’m here, Foxhound,” said a very worried Captain Rasmussen. “What is your status?”
“I got VC coming out of the woodwork,” said Blake. “I need you to drop your payload on my position, Ras. I say again. Drop what you have on my pause.”
“What?” yelled Captain Rasmussen. “Bill! No!” Rasmussen descended and made a quick pass over Blake’s downed Phantom. “Bill, we got Jolly Green and Sandy on the way to pull you out, and the infantry guys…”
“No, Ras,” interrupted Captain Blake. “If the VC have another 23mm up in those hills, they’ll chew up the search and rescue Jolly Green and Sandy when they come in. And the infantry won’t get here in time. If they do they’ll just get chewed up in another VC ambush.”
“Don’t make me do this! Oh, God! Please don’t make me do this!” said Rasmussen as he banked his F4 Phantom in tight turns overhead.
“Please, Ras. I’m already done for. I can’t be taken prisoner.” said Captain Blake weakly. “Goose is dead and my legs are broken, Ras. I won’t survive the journey to the Hanoi Hilton. They’ll torture me. Please, Ras.”
“Bill! Bill, I can’t! Oh my God! No!”
“Please, Ras. Do it. Do it.” begged Captain Blake. “I’m already dead. Do it.”
Dozens of VC fighters were running across the field, firing at the downed Phantom and up at the Phantom that was circling helplessly overhead. The VC were confident that the American overhead wouldn’t dare to attack them, not with the downed American pilot in their possession. Already, a half dozen VC soldiers were climbing up on the downed Phantom’s wings in order to get to the Yankee air pirate that was trapped in his cockpit, while many more VC surrounded the fuselage, firing up at Rasmussen’s fighter with their AK47s.
“Ras,” said Captain Blake.
“God damn it! God damn it! God damn it!” yelled Captain Rasmussen. “Bill! I’m rolling hot! Get down. Oh my God, Bill! Get down!”
The VC soldiers looked up, looks of shock and horror etched on their faces as black exhaust smoke marked the enemy F4 Phantom’s diving attack. Screaming, the VC froze in disbelief as they watched two silver napalm canisters drop from the Phantom’s wings and the fires of hell reached out to embrace them.
As the rolling wave of red flames came to engulf him, Blake saw that his wrecked F4 Phantom was now surrounded by about forty Vietnamese villagers. He recognized one of them as the girl he saw in the shower stalls. Blake knew instinctively that these were the villagers that he had killed at Lao Cai. They were healthy and whole and they were smiling at him, an expression of forgiveness in their faces. Blake smiled.