Friendly Fire
by Donald J. Taylor
Sergeant Major (Retired)
U.S. Army Special Forces
Project Delta Recon Team Leader
July 1968 - July 1970

Sergeant First Class Arno J. Voigt was killed by friendly fire near Khe Sanh, Republic of Vietnam on June 4, 1970, and like all friendly fire accidents it was one of those things that shouldn’t have happened but did. A Pink Team consisting of an OH-6 Cayuse Light Observation Helicopter (Loach) and three AH-1G Cobra Gun Ships from the 2d Squadron 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division mistook Arno Voigt and a company of ARVN Airborne Rangers for a company of NVA and fired on them, killing Arno Voigt along with two Rangers and wounding an additional twenty Rangers. This is the story of how and why some of us think this accident happened and whom we think was ultimately at fault in the sequence of events that led to the needless loss of good men that day.

Project Delta deployed to Quang Tri Province in May 1970 and set up a Forward Operating Base (FOB) outside the Special Forces Camp at Mai Loc to conduct Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols along the Laotian border from the DMZ south to the Khe Sanh area. During this deployment, a Pink Team from the 2/17th Cavalry was also working out of Mai Loc, but they were not there to provide gunship support for Project Delta ground operations, as a gun ship platoon of AH-1G Cobras from the 158th Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division was at Mai Loc for that purpose.

The Pink Team from the 2/17th Cavalry was at Mai Loc to do what Pink Teams did. The Pink Team’s OH-6 would fly at treetop level drawing enemy fire and searching for likely targets and the team’s three Cobras would hang above and behind the OH-6 at a thousand feet or so. When the observer on the OH-6 identified a target, he would drop a smoke grenade to mark the target, and the three Cobras, armed with 7.62MM mini-guns and 2.75 inch rockets, would dive and fire on the marked target. Close coordination was maintained between Project Delta and this Pink Team to ensure they knew where the Project had deployed ground operations and the Pink Team would stay out of those areas. Project Delta’s Area of Operation was large enough that it was thought to be unlikely the Pink Team would interfere with ground operations.

The initial report received back at the Mai Loc FOB was that Arno Voigt and his Ranger Company had been conducting a BDA (bomb damage assessment) of a recent B-52 strike (Arc light) vicinity coordinates XD932296, and were moving through the bomb craters and devastation when the Pink Team’s OH-6 flew low over the hill they were on and marked their position with red smoke. As soon as the Rangers were marked as a target, a Cobra dove and fired on the Ranger Company. While in a dive and firing, the Cobra pilot was able to recognize the men on the ground as “friendly” and called a cease-fire. If all three Cobras had expended their munitions on that target, Project Delta would have probably lost the entire Ranger Company.

There were two questions that needed answering. How could the OH-6 observer, flying at 40-50 feet above ground level (AGL), in broad open daylight, see a company of Project Delta Rangers in the open, carrying M-16 rifles, wearing ARVN uniforms with U.S. steel helmets and mistake them for a company of NVA? Also, why was the Pink Team operating in an area they had been told to stay out of due to an ongoing Project Delta ground operation?

This incident was especially tragic because the friendly fire that killed Arno Voigt was from the same Pink Team we in Delta Recon had worked so closely with during our deployment to Mai Loc, so the friendly fire had indeed come from friends. There was a thorough investigation into how it had happened, and if there was negligence involved, surely someone took the blame, but we never knew the investigation’s findings. However, we had worked so closely with this Pink Team that we, in Recon, thought we knew exactly how and why this friendly fire incident occurred.

Early in the deployment to Mai Loc, Project Delta’s Reconnaissance Section developed a close relationship with this Pink Team when it was realized that a real close up look at our Recon Area of Operation (AO) could be had while flying in the observer seat of the OH-6. It wasn’t long before Recon Team Leaders (RTLs) were flying with the Pink Team on a daily basis when not deployed on reconnaissance patrols. The assigned OH-6 observer didn’t mind at all letting someone else go out and get shot at in his place, and we needed a close up look at our AOs, so everyone was happy with the arrangement.

As observers, RTLs flew in the left seat (copilot’s seat) of the OH-6 with a red smoke grenade in our left hand and the pin pulled. When we identified a target, we threw the grenade out and the pilot broke off at a right angle. As soon as the Cobras saw the smoke, they dove and fired their mini-guns and rockets at the smoke. The 2.75-inch Flechette rockets these Cobras fired were especially deadly, as each rocket was packed with over 2,000 tiny steel darts that rained down after the warhead exploded over the target area. When fired on troops in the open, one Flechette rocket could reliably kill or wound everything within an area the size of a football field, and each Cobra could carry up to eighteen of these Flechette rockets in its two rocket pods, but Cobra rocket pods were usually loaded with a mixture of Flechette (Nails), High Explosive (HE), and White Phosphorous (WP). The Pink Team could handle any target they happened upon, from troops in the open or troops in a tree line, to troops in bunkers or troops in vehicles.

One of the first times I flew as an observer on a Pink Team OH-6, and hadn’t really got the hang of it as yet, we were flying along at tree top level (40-50 feet AGL) in a tree filled valley floor, doing over 100 knots per hour and following occasional glimpses of a high speed trail that meandered through the trees and through occasional small clearings when suddenly something caught my eye as we passed over a small clearing. But at that speed, the blurred image didn’t register in my mind exactly what it was, so I keyed my mic and said, “I saw something back there in that clearing.” I had no idea at the time how maneuverable that helicopter was, but the pilot stood the helicopter on its nose, flipped it around and hovered us over the exact clearing where I had keyed my mic. I looked down and saw a column of NVA soldiers frozen in place beside the trail and looking up at me as I looked down at them. I knew I was supposed to toss the red smoke grenade at them, but I hesitated, and we hung there, with time temporarily suspended, and just stared at one another at a distance of about 40 feet.

I had hesitated even though I was fairly certain I was in my own Recon AO and a Project Delta Road Runner Team wouldn’t have been in my AO. Road Runners were ethnic Vietnamese, wore NVA uniforms and carried AK-47s, and it was nearly impossible to distinguish them from actual NVA. I hesitated because none of us could ever be absolutely positive we knew exactly where we were at any given time. Navigation was an imprecise science on imperfect maps, and there was always the possibility we were not where we thought we were. Navigation in those mountain valleys of I Corps was done by dead reckoning and proximity to major terrain features, or by counting turns in the river, or by counting the river intersections we crossed. If we miscounted the turns in the river or river intersections, we could easily be at least one valley off and never realize it.

The troops strung out on the trail below me were in NVA uniforms and carrying AK-47s just as our Road Runners would have been, but our Road Runners never deployed in teams larger than six, so I stopped counting when I got to eight. Even if I had unknowingly wandered into a Road Runner AO, those weren’t Road Runners below me.

It seemed much longer, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple of seconds that I hesitated just to make sure it was the enemy I was about kill, but then, the strangest thing happened. The closest NVA soldier, directly under the helicopter and no more than 40 feet away, slowly raised his hand, smiled, and waved at me. That broke the spell, I flung the red smoke grenade at him, the pilot broke off to the right, and the Cobras pounced.

As movement is quickly spotted from the air, these NVA soldiers had been trained to freeze in place and not move when they heard helicopters approaching, and they had done just that. They had also been taught if they were caught in the open and were seen by a helicopter, to wave at it and the crew might think they were ARVN, and they had done just that. Too bad, they followed their training and they still died.

The rules of engagement for an OH-6 observer were that he must make positive identification of the target, and if there was any doubt at all, the target would not be marked. If I had counted no more than six NVA, there would have been a slight possibility that those soldiers smiling and waving on the trail below me were Project Delta Road Runners, and we would have passed them by. It was better to let six enemy soldiers live than to risk killing six of our Road Runners.

As it was just one of us RTLs and the pilot flying along there at treetop level getting shot at, the pilot thought it might be a good idea to teach us how to fly an OH-6 well enough to possibly bring it home if he got hit. It was just a matter of self-preservation for the pilot to do so. After a few lessons (nothing like OJT), most of us were able to fly the OH-6 well enough to maybe get us back to Mai Loc, but only one of us ever got the opportunity to try, and that was Al Drapeau.

Al was flying observer on a Pink Team OH-6 out by the corner where the DMZ met the Laotian border when the NVA fired on them with a Soviet ZSU-23-4 anti aircraft gun. Let me remind you what a ZSU-23-4 was. It was a track mounted, four-barreled, 23MM, fully automatic anti-aircraft gun that fired yellow tracers. This thing put out such a volume of fire (4,000 RPM) that it was called the “Golden Hose” because the yellow tracers looked like a hose spraying yellow water at you.

Al Drapeau told this story from his hospital bed: He said they were flying near the big mountain that set right on the Laotian border near the DMZ when a “Golden Hose” fired on them and the OH-6 took numerous hits. Suddenly, he heard the pilot say over the intercom, “Take it; I’m hit.” Al reached out, grabbed the controls, and the cyclic (stick) broke away in his hand; it had been shot completely in two. Al said he saw trees start going by at a very high rate of speed and then suddenly the lights went out. The OH-6 hit the ground at an estimated 150 knots per hour forward airspeed, but hit no large trees, and just rolled, and rolled, and rolled, finally coming to a stop on what was left of the OH-6’s left side with Al’s face in the dirt. Al and the pilot crawled out of the wreckage, and a short time later they were recovered by McGuire rig. They both survived multiple fragment and gunshot wounds, but above all they owed their lives to the sturdy egg-shaped construction of the OH-6 airframe. In a crash, if an OH-6 didn’t hit anything solid in its path, it would remain intact and roll like an egg.

The reason Al Drapeau had been flying the OH-6 at its maximum airspeed of 150 knots per hour when they hit the ground was because the Pink Team had made a navigation error that day, had inadvertently wandered across the DMZ, and had been fired on while on the North Vietnam side of the border. Al and the pilot realized they were on the wrong side of the border when the sky lit up around them with a greater variety of anti-aircraft fire than one would ever experience over South Vietnam. They were high-tailing it back across the border and flying at maximum possible airspeed when they were shot out of the sky by the ZSU-23-4 and crashed inside the DMZ.

It was from these experiences working with the Pink Team that we, in Recon, thought we knew how it happened that this Pink Team we knew so well had killed Arno Voigt. Two things had to have gone wrong. The Pink Team had to have made a navigation error and they just weren’t where they thought they were, and the observer had failed to positively identify his target before he threw his smoke grenade. A navigation error could easily have been made and that can be forgiven, but for the observer to fail to positively identify his target before releasing his smoke grenade is unforgivable.

As the OH-6 had approached the Delta Ranger Company from the opposite side of the hill, the observer could not have seen the Rangers as he approached, and the observer had only seen the Rangers for the first time as the OH-6 passed over them. The observer, looking out the left side of the OH-6 while flying at over 100 knots per hour and at an altitude of 40 feet AGL, saw the Rangers only as a blur below him and could not have possibly identified their uniforms or their weapons. There is little doubt the observer had seen nothing but blurred images of men on the ground below him, but he had marked them for death anyway. It was a cruel twist of fate that had the assigned observer flying that day and not one of us from Delta Recon, for if it had been one of us, Arno Voigt would probably still be alive today, and the OH-6 observer would not have had to live all these years with the knowledge that good men died because of his negligence.

We all lost something the day Arno Voigt fell to friendly fire on the Khe Sanh Plain. Our country lost one of its finest soldiers, a mother and father lost their son and heir, a young wife lost her husband and life’s companion, little children lost their devoted father and protector, and we lost a good friend and comrade. There is little doubt but that the world would be a much better place today if only friendly fire had not carelessly taken Arno Voigt’s life.

All professional soldiers are prepared to lay down their life in mortal combat with our country’s enemies. However, when a soldier engaged in combat needlessly loses his life due to a fellow soldier’s negligence, as did Arno Voigt, it is a personal tragedy beyond description for all of us in the Profession of Arms.

BACK          HOME