Move Over, I’ll Bomb It Myself

By Will Stafford

In 1968 I was flying B-model gunships out of Ninh Hoa (48th Assault Helicopter Company). Our area wasn’t the most hotly contested in Vietnam but we had our days of significant contact. I’ve always equated the fact that the enemy around our area didn’t venture out a lot because we supported the 9th Korean (White Horse) Division. These guys had a well earned reputation as fierce fighters.

During my tour I had heard about Arc Lights, but had never seen one. I had talked to our Forward Air Controller (FAC) who, by any standards, was not an amiable fellow and asked him what was required to get an Arc Light. At the time I was bugging him about calling in an Arc Light, I was a lowly warrant officer and his response was for me to simply "f*** off." He wouldn’t even tell me what it took to get one. Since I didn’t really know how they were controlled I sort of figured they were just another tactical on-call mission. Shows what I knew about Arc Light missions. I think the FAC was bitter because he was an Air Force Major flying an observation airplane rather than an F100 or F4 Phantom. I got the impression he thought he was superior to us sling wing guys because he had master aviator wings and had probably, at some time in his career, flown the fast movers. Well, that may have been in another life, but right now he was driving a Bird Dog and to be quite honest, most of us were not that impressed with his flying or his support of the ground troops.

One of the missions we liked to fly were the "first light" and "last light"missions. These missions put us in the air with a light fire team patrolling the numerous free fire zones at sunrise and sunset. We did pretty good in the areas to the north and west of Ninh Hoa and up around the west of Tuy Hoa. Anyway, when we would take significant enemy fire we would roll in and shoot up the area and the Korean liaison who rode with us would report the contact back to Division Headquarters. I would also call the FAC and ask him for an Arc Light. Sometimes he would be airborne but most of the time he would just be back at our operations tent. I really don’t think he liked to fly. His response was always the same, "f*** off."

The only bombs we had seen dropped, and we didn’t actually see them dropped, was when we flew into an area to do a bomb damage assessment after the bombs had already been delivered. I’ve got to admit, it is an impressive sight, but we wanted to see what bombs do while they were impacting. You’ve got to remember, here we are, a helicopter gunship with a maximum ordnance load of fourteen rockets, (explosion just a little bigger than a hand grenade) four flex mounted M60 machine guns (we hadn’t gotten the mini guns yet) and two M60 machine gun door guns. Run up against something like a .50 cal and we had our hands full. We wanted to see something really kick ass.

So to get an Arc Light, we came up with a plan. We would do it ourselves. Maybe it wouldn’t a big Arc Light, but by God we were going to drop some bombs. I think it was actually the crew chief who came up with the idea. We were a pretty close crew and enjoyed flying together most of the time. We tended to take some liberties with the SOP, but we worked as hard as we played If we decided to do something normal folks might find a bit eccentric, we’d vote on it with each vote having equal weight. The trail ship didn’t get to vote. Our rational for this rule was, when they had enough time in-country they could be gun lead but by then we’d either have DEROSed or.............It seems like we were constantly taking votes because we did quite a bit that wasn’t "normal procedure." We may not have been round pegs in square holes, but I suspect we were pretty close to it. We were, according to the CO, crazy.

Larry, another of the gun pilots who flew with me a lot, had meet an Air Force sergeant during R&R. The sergeant had something to do with ordnance supply or storage or something that gave him access to bombs. He was stationed at Phan Rang Air Base which was about a forty-five minute flight from Ninh Hoa. Larry got in touch with him and a deal was struck for four 25 pound bombs. In exchange we had to come up with an NVA flag, an SKS rifle, and two survival knives.

We had an NVA flag made up by a local Vietnamese tailor (he was understandably reluctant to make it which cost us a little more than we had anticipated). We took it out and shot a few holes in it, got some chicken blood and sprinkled a little of that on it, bleached it out with a concoction of denatured alcohol and crushed up heat tabs and then beat it on some rocks for a while to fray the end and bottom out a bit. We also left it in the sun for several days to get the smell of alcohol and heat tabs out. We even made up a story about how we captured it from a NVA battalion headquarters out west of Phan Rang. For a bunch of amateur liars (though a couple of us were nearing professional status. Not Clinton class of course but good in our own way), we did a pretty good job. We had the SKS rifle already but it had a broken stock. There wasn’t much we could do about that. The survival knives were no problem since we each had one and they were expendable items anyway.

When we were ready, we volunteered for a standby mission down in the Phan Rang area and made contact with the Air Force sergeant. When we arrived, he had the four 25 pound bombs for us. They looked exactly like what I had seen in movies, or at least they did when we finally got them assembled. There were some fins which you had to sit in a bracket and screw on. He gave us four fuses which were propeller looking outfits with safety wire on the propeller. These were to be screwed into the front of the bombs. The bombs weighed more than 25 pounds which we had not expected. I don’t know exactly how much they did weigh but it was a good deal more than 25 pounds. The extra weight caused us to leave half our rockets and quite a bit of M-60 machine gun ammunition behind because we couldn’t get off the ground. The trail ship said they weren’t going to carry any bombs even without the fuses. Anyway, the sergeant said they were 25 pound bombs because the explosive equivalent was 25 pounds of TNT which made sense to us. Of course, when we were on one of these hair brained campaigns, anything sounded reasonable. He said not to put the fuse in before we were ready to drop them because the bomb was armed by the fuse propeller turning. We forgot to ask what altitude we needed to be at to drop them and that caused us some problems later.

It took almost a month before everything lined up. Lining up meaning, we needed to find an area where we knew we would get fired on, that the FAC would be off his lazy ass and actually in the air at the same time we were, that we would not be on regular missions, and we could get the bombs to the helicopter without too many eyes on us.

We had been taking every last light flight until we finally got into an area northeast of Ninh Hoa. On three successive evenings we took fire, so this was the place. We talked the FAC into going up and hanging around while we went into the area on the fourth night and told the Korean liaison to stay at home. We got the bombs to the aircraft and put two in each doorway. We had made two bomb ramps out of some 2 x 4's nailed side by side. We needed the ramps so the bombs could be rolled out of each side of the aircraft sort of simultaneously and also we needed some extension so they would miss the skids.

Now the problem became, how high we needed to be to drop them? We didn’t know how many turns the propellers had to make to arm. We finally came up with a plan though. Our solution was to take the safety wire off and turned them by hand the night before for about half an hour each. Yea, I know that wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to do. But here we are flying into an area we know we’re going to get shot at so we can drop bombs from a helicopter. That should give you a clue right away that we weren’t the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. I really don’t remember which of us four Einstein’s came up with that plan and I doubt if any of us would own up to it even thirty years later.

Once in the area it didn’t take too long before we drew fire. We rolled in and launched a couple of pair of rockets and put some machine gun fire in the area. We didn’t have a lot of ordnance on board so we could carry the bombs. I made a call to the FAC and asked if he had seen the fire. He said yes. I asked for an Arc Light and got the same response as always. Now it was my chance. I told him to get the f*** out of the way then and we’d Arc Light it ourselves. I had the trail ship keep fire on the area while we got a little altitude. As we came over the area the crewchief and gunner rolled out the bombs. We thought three of them exploded but weren’t sure about the fourth.

Did we do any damage? Probably not but the explosions were bigger than anything we could make with rockets and the return fire stopped. I can come up three reasons for this. First, and the one I like best, is that we did get close enough to scare the daylights out of the bad guys. Second, they were confused enough to go into a hasty conference to decide what their tactical options were. Finally, and probably most likely, they were laughing so hard they couldn’t return fire. No matter which of the three scenarios, we had some fun and managed to really antogonize the FAC.

I got in a little trouble over the Arc Light. The FAC turned me in to the old man and he blistered my ass. I had been put in for a battlefield commission a few months earlier which he now threatened to have stopped and to send all of us back to one of the slick platoons. He didn’t! During the ass chewing, which was a good one with lots of colorful language, he mentioned that as a crew, the four of us were only wading ankle deep in the gene pool. I thought that was a really original saying and used it later in my career when I had occasion to be upset with a platoon leader or two. We were not allowed to do any first light and last light missions for a month and we got saddled with a lot of crappy escort and standby stuff, but it was worth it.

I guess if you take war too seriously you’ll go crazy or perhaps we were there already and the war just gave us an outlet. Well, if nothing else, we drank a lot of free beer at the club as we told the story and retold it and retold it. When we finally got a new FAC we started the same request campaign again. He also told us to f*** off but told us what it would take to get an Arc Light and we understood. We didn’t have a ghost of a chance of ever seeing one where we were. He also said the outgoing FAC had told him to, "watch out for those crazy bastards." That gave us a warm and happy feeling and we did the Snoopy dance.

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