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

The sound isnít heard much anymore, but a sound that will bring back a flood of memories to most Vietnam Veterans is the unmistakable sound of the UH-1 (Huey) helicopter muttering in the distance. The harmonic beat of those Huey rotors sound like no other helicopter flying today. Sometimes I wonder if the Special Forces soldier of today can tell the difference, at a distance, between the sound of a UH-60 Black Hawk, an Mi-17 Hip, or an Mi-24 Hind. I know I canít tell the difference.

The Huey, like us, is retired from active duty now, but on the rare occasion when a Huey is heard, it is as if an old friend has come to visit. The Huey took us to the fight and it faithfully brought us home, and the sound of its engine in our ears was as familiar to us as the sound of our own heartbeat. Nothing was more comforting than the smooth whine of a healthy Huey engine, and nothing could claim your undivided attention more quickly than when a Huey engine faltered. The dying scream a Huey made when it ran out of fuel has to be, for me, one of the most unforgettable sounds of the Vietnam War.

The first time I heard the distinct sound a Huey made when it was running on near-empty fuel tanks was when Project Delta, with the 281st Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) in support, was deployed to I Corps in June 1969. In the years that followed, I heard the sound several more times, but that time in June 1969 was by far the most unforgettable, and hereís the story:

We had set up our Forward Operating Base (FOB) at the U.S. Marine Corps Base at An Hoa, and were conducting Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) operations along the Laotian border near the abandoned U.S. Special Forces camp at Kham Duc. One morning in mid-June, my six-man recon team was called to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to receive a reconnaissance mission briefing from the Project Staff. We were assigned our reconnaissance Area of Operation (AO), along with a warning order that we would be infiltrated at last light in three days and would remain on the ground in our AO for five days. Our assigned reconnaissance AO was a fifteen-kilometer by fifteen-kilometer square in the mountainous area between Kham Duc and the Laotian border, and our target was a recently constructed road network that crossed from Laos into Vietnam. The Essential Elements of Intelligence (EEI) we were to ascertain during the five days of patrolling our AO was the type and frequency of the traffic on this road network.

At this briefing, my Recon Team was introduced to the 281st AHC helicopter crew that had been assigned to fly for our infiltration, our exfiltration, and any aviation support we may need in the preparation and conduct of our reconnaissance mission. The crew would not fly for any other Recon Team, or fly any missions unrelated to my recon mission until my Recon Team had completed its mission and had been exfiltrated from the AO. In effect, the crew had become members of my Recon Team.

Following the briefing, I flew out with the U.S. Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC) in an O-2 Cessna to over-fly my AO, locate the targeted road network, find a suitable primary and alternate helicopter infiltration Landing Zone (LZ), plot my intended route of march to the targeted road network, locate my planned exfiltration LZ and plot any emergency LZs I could find in my AO.

Upon return from the FAC VR (visual reconnaissance), I briefed my team on what I had seen, and we made a plan on how we would carry out our mission. Then we rehearsed our SOPs (standing operating procedures). We had a predetermined SOP for everything we did from the time we left the FOB until we returned, and I mean everything. We made nothing up as we went along. We had an SOP for how we moved, how we stopped, how we rested, how we ate, how we relieved ourselves, how we slept, how we cleaned our weapons, how we wore our equipment, where we kept our equipment on our bodies, and most of all we had SOPs for how we would make and/or break contact with the enemy. For this, we had IA (immediate action) drills, actions at danger areas, actions at the objective, and movement into and establishment of an ambush. We also rehearsed our POW snatch drill, because if the situation presented its self, the best way to gain our EEI would be to snatch an enemy soldier off the road and bring him back alive. Except for hand and arm signals, it was seldom necessary to speak (whisper) with one another or give instructions during our patrols, as each man knew what he must do in response to any possible situation we may encounter, and he would simply follow the SOP for the situation.

Each man in the Recon Team knew his assigned sector of responsibility for fire and for observation during movement, during rest breaks, in RON (remain over night) positions and, of course, in ambush positions. These sectors of responsibility overlapped and encompassed the entire 360 degrees around the team. No sector was ever left unobserved or not covered by fire. The Recon Team could change from a movement formation into an ambush formation in a split second. In fact, our rest break formation and our RON formation were simply modifications of our ambush formation. No matter what we were doing, we were prepared to fight from whatever formation we were in at the time.

Each Project Delta Recon Team Leader had his own personal set of SOPs, and the strength of these SOPs lay in their individuality. No Recon Team would use the same SOPs as another team used, and the purpose of this was to keep the enemy from learning from the compromise of one Recon Teamís SOPs how to counter all Project Delta Recon Teams.

The day before our scheduled infiltration, my Recon Team linked up with our assigned helicopter crew to fly a helicopter VR of our recon AO. My team needed to see the AO, the target, and the infiltration LZ, but it was imperative that our pilots see the infiltration LZ and verify that it could indeed be used for our infiltration. My infiltration LZ was, as were most, just a bomb crater in triple canopy jungle on the side of a mountain, and it was always a bit uncertain as to whether or not these craters could be used as LZs. It all depended on the skill level, courage, and sanity of the pilot. The trees around the bomb crater were over 200í tall, and I needed the helicopter to drop at least 155í straight down into the hole so we could use the helicopterís 35í ladders to descend the remaining 45í to the ground. If the ladders could take us to within 10í of the ground, we would drop the remaining distance.

For this flight, our helicopter was part of a flight formation that was flying out to perform a last light infiltration of another Recon Team. The flight consisted of the Command and Control (C& C) helicopter, the infiltration helicopter, a chase helicopter (It flew empty, and was in the flight to retrieve the crew if another helicopter went down.), my VR helicopter, a gunship platoon, and the FAC O-2 Cessna.

These recon AOs were all at maximum range for a Huey. Our Hueys could only carry enough fuel on board to fly out, spend no more than 20-30 minutes on station, and then they had to return to the FOB before they ran out of fuel. As it was so far out, we would fly our helicopter VRs in conjunction with either scheduled Recon Team infiltrations or scheduled extractions; a flight was never sent out to only fly a helicopter VR.

As it happened, on this helicopter VR we had barely gotten out into the Delta AO with the infiltration flight when a radio call was received from a Recon Team led by Ted Perkins that had been infiltrated the previous evening. Ted advised that his Recon Team had just made contact with the enemy, had taken casualties, and he requested an emergency extraction by McGuire rig. The decision was quickly made by C&C that the flight would divide. With half the flight continuing with the infiltration, the other half flying the emergency extraction for Perkins, and to do this they needed the helicopter my team was on.

The pilot asked me to pick an LZ and he would come back and get us after Perkinsí team had been extracted. Daylight and fuel were so critical at this time that I couldnít be too picky about an LZ, so I quickly looked around and could see nothing immediately usable as an LZ in the area except the runway at the abandoned U.S. Special Forces Camp at Kham Duc. I pointed at the runway and told the pilot to put us down on the west end of the runway; our helicopter immediately dropped out of flight formation and headed toward Kham Duc.

I knew that about a year earlier the camp at Kham Duc had been abandoned after a long siege and a fierce battle with a division sized NVA unit, but the runway appeared undamaged. Kham Duc had a very distinctive runway, as it was a mile long, asphalt black topped, and had an intermittent white stripe painted down the middle. It looked as if a stretch of U.S. Interstate Highway had been plopped down in a mountain valley out in the middle of nowhere, and there was no visible evidence of human habitation anywhere else in that valley. As far as I knew, Kham Duc had been the only U.S. Special Forces Camp in Vietnam with a paved runway, and I had often wondered why, of all the Special Forces Camps in Vietnam, that runway had been paved. It was many years after the war that I learned Kham Duc had once been Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diemís private hunting lodge and he had built the runway back in the late 1950s; the U.S. Military had not built it.

We were flying at treetop level as we approached Kham Duc from the east and received heavy small arms ground fire as we broke over the ridgeline east of the runway, but the helicopter didnít take any serious hits. I looked down at what was left of the abandoned Special Forces Camp, saw it had been completely destroyed and was nothing but rubble now overgrown by the jungle. However, I also noticed that there were many heavily used trails running to and through the camp, and there was fresh digging all over the camp as if people were digging in the rubble in an attempt to recover whatever had been in the bunkers when they were destroyed.

As soon as the helicopter touched down, my team exited, ran into the woods line, and came upon a hard packed trail with fresh scuffmarks on it that appeared to run the length of the runway. As the helicopter lifted off, it received heavy small arms fire from the hills above Kham Duc, I heard shouting from the other end of the runway, shots were fired from across the runway, and I then realized that in my haste I had probably picked the worst place in all of I Corps as an LZ. An NVA Division had been there a year before, and it looked like most of them were still there.

We needed to stay close to the runway, so I put in an ambush on the trail and hoped against hope that the helicopter would return before the NVA arrived, as I knew they soon would. If we made contact, we would have to withdraw away from the runway, and I already knew there were no extraction LZs anywhere nearby.

My team SOP required team members to take weapon, LBE, basic load of ammunition, grenades, two canteens, and a ration with them on helicopter VRs just in case the helicopter went down and we had to E&E (evade and escape). Of course, I always carried a PRC-25 radio on these VRs, so we had everything we needed except 1:50,000 maps of the area and a few claymore mines.

After about 45 minutes, it had gotten dark; I did a rough calculation of fuel/flight time and determined that our helicopter didnít now have enough fuel on board to come back for us. I didnít think our helicopter was coming back, so we were going to have to put as much distance between that runway and us as we could before it got completely dark.

But, as we were moving out I heard the sound of a lone Huey coming through the mountains way in the distance, and the sound steadily grew louder and louder. We left the woods line and returned to the runway just as the Huey came over the ridgeline east of Kham Duc. The Huey again took small arms fire as it crossed the ridgeline, then flew straight down the runway to where we were assembled. But this time, it was taking fire from a 12.7 MM heavy machinegun high on the ridgeline above Kham Duc and less than a kilometer away. The 12.7 was firing ragged bursts of 5-6 rounds and missing the helicopter by a wide margin. The only reason I could think of that the 12.7 gunner was missing so badly was that it was too dark for him to see the helicopter clearly at that distance and he was just firing at the sound. The Huey touched down on the same spot he had dropped us off, and with those 12.7 MM tracers hitting the runway behind the Huey, bouncing, and tumbling off into the darkness like green basketballs, it didnít take us long at all to board that helicopter, lift off, and head for An Hoa.

We were flying through the mountains in total darkness and were about 10 kilometers southwest of the U.S. Special Forces Camp at Thuong Duc when the crew chief tapped me on the shoulder and shouted, ďTell your guys to hang on. Weíre going down.Ē My response was something like, ďWhut? Why?Ē The crew chief answered, ďWeíre out of fuel. Do you hear that?Ē Only then did I notice a loud, high-pitched scream emanating from the engine, and it didnít sound good at all.

The pilot flipped on his landing light, set the helicopter down in a large clearing by the river, and immediately shut the engine down. Or did we auto rotate in? I donít knowÖI was a bit preoccupied. I put my team out in a 360 around the helicopter, and some time later several helicopters arrived with the BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment) platoon. The BDA platoon secured the helicopter for the night and my team and our helicopter crew returned to the FOB.

Later that evening, the crew chief explained to me that the Huey engine made that screaming sound when it ran out of fuel and started sucking the sealant from the fuel tanks into the engine. According to him, there was a thick semi-liquid sealant in the bottom of the fuel tank that was there to plug bullet holes if the tank was shot, and when there was very little fuel left in the tank, bits of this gooey mess were sucked into the engine; by the sound of it, the engine didnít like it at all.

The pilot told me that Perkinsí Recon Team had not been immediately ready for pick up. The gun ships had to work the area for a while and force the NVA to break contact and withdraw. After a long delay, the team had been lifted out by McGuire rig using his helicopter and the chase helicopter. He had set down in a clearing some distance from the extraction LZ and transferred his three pick-ups to the chase helicopter. The rest of the flight formation, at that time, just barely had enough fuel left to make it back to An Hoa, and they departed. The pilot knew he didnít have enough fuel to come back for us and then fly back to An Hoa, but he thought he just might have enough fuel to make it to the Thuong Duc Special Forces Camp. After seeing the amount of enemy fire coming from the area around the airstrip, he knew our chances of surviving the night on or near the Kham Duc airstrip were almost zero, and he knew he had to come back for ďhisĒ Recon Team. Yes, he came back alone, in the dark, and with almost empty fuel tanks to what he knew to be an extremely hot area, and he came back because he had said he would come back. I donít remember the pilotís name, and Iím not sure I even said thanks. Back then, for all of us, it was just all in a dayís work.

We never got to fly our helicopter VR. The next day, after the brief-back where I briefed the Project Commander and Staff on how we intended to accomplish our recon mission, our helicopter crew inserted us at last light into my primary LZ. The bomb crater LZ was a tight fit, but the pilot managed to get us down low enough that we could drop off the end of the 35í ladders into the soft sides of the bomb crater.

The reason recon teams used these marginally usable infiltration LZs was because the enemy usually had LZ watchers observing the larger and more obviously usable LZs. The only way a recon team could survive in border areas where large numbers of enemy troops were either stationed or were constantly moving through was for the recon team to remain undetected. Because once the enemy detected the recon team, they would assign at least a company of infantry to chase the recon team until they had either killed the team or the team had successfully effected an emergency extraction.

Things went well on this recon patrol until we neared the road network and were detected by one of its security elements. Then my recon patrol ended the way they frequently did in that strip between Kham Duc and the Laotian border. It ended in a brisk firefight, a chase, a request through radio relay for an emergency extraction, a FAC arrival on station, a liberal and impressive application of tactical air support, a desperate effort to hold an LZ until help arrived, and then the long wait for the first detectable murmur of a distant flight of Hueys coming for to carry me home.

The sound of a Huey muttering in the distance can really bring back the memories, now canít it?