Rescue of Ranger Team 76

Discussion in 'The VMBB True Story Tellers' started by Snakedriver, Apr 23, 2009.

  1. Snakedriver

    Snakedriver Active Member

    Mar 4, 2009
    SW. Florida
    This story is dedicated to all of the brave men and women that serve everyday in the military of our Country to keep it a safe place to live and raise our families. Further, it is especially dedicated to the memory of the eight pilots in F/79th Aerial Rocket Artillery (Blue Max) that lost their lives in Vietnam during the period 1 April 1972 to 30 June 1972. Here’s the roll-call, “They gave their Max!”:

    Capt. Henry Spengler
    CW2 Charles Windler
    Capt. Rodney Strobridge
    Capt. Robert Williams
    CW2 Ike Hosaka
    CW2 John Henn
    1LT Stephen Shields
    Capt. Edward Northrup


    During late March 1972, things were about to take an ugly turn in Vietnam. Our quiet little war, that everyone kept saying was about to be over, was on the eve of a new savage beginning. Despite all the negotiations and talks of peace that had been going on for years, The North Vietnamese intended to pursue a military solution to accomplish their goals of bringing down the South’s government along with their U.S. allies. The enemy forces were quietly moving their troops and vast quantities of advanced Russian and Chinese equipment into position throughout the country, and were quietly awaiting the command to launch the attack to come from their leaders. Little did our small reconnaissance patrol, Ranger Team 76 know when they left on their mission that they were about to step off into the mouth of an angry dragon.

    One day during that last week of March, I was flying co-pilot, in the front seat with one of the unit’s combat seasoned aircraft commanders who was to be the mission lead on any missions we flew in our flight of two AH-1G Cobras. In a Cobra the front seat position or “peter-pilot” was usually reserved for the new guy who was learning the AO and artillery procedures all while was gaining valuable combat flying experience. The peter-pilot fired the nose turret guns and did the navigation on the maps while the aircraft commander in the back seat did the majority of the flying and firing of the wing mounted weapons.

    On that day, we were to be the first ready fireteam on “2-minute “stand-by” and that meant that when the horn blew we were supposed to be off the ground on the way to our target in 2-minutes or less. That would mean that for 24-hours we stayed fairly close to our aircraft, and if you did do any sleeping it was in full gear. Late in the afternoon the horn went off and we were called out to provide fire support for some U.S. Rangers (“Sneaky Petes”) that had run into some trouble while out on patrol in a place nicknamed the Hobo Woods, and we were going to accompany a Huey lift helicopter to evacuate them.

    The Hobo Woods was a heavily wooded area near the Cambodian border Northwest of Saigon where no helicopter pilot in his right mind would willingly want to go to fly. In fact, it was one of those areas mentioned during the in-country orientation check-ride that you should avoid at all costs because of the large numbers of enemy troops and intense anti-aircraft guns that were known to exist in that area. Yet for some reason, here we were on this mission heading for the “Woods” to rescue some endangered troops that had called for help. This was sure to be an exciting mission!

    Shortly before arriving at the last known coordinates of the troops under fire, we dropped to tree top level and increased our speed to maximum. For me the “pucker-factor” was also cranked to full-on. As we approached from several miles out my AC made the call over the radio to make contact with the LRRP’s that were in trouble to see what their situation was, and how we could provide help for them. They immediately came up on the radio and told us frantically they had run directly into a very large group of heavily armed and extremely hostile enemy forces. They said they were on the run were being chased in close pursuit by an undetermined number of enemy troops. From the near panic in the team leader’s voice, all the shouting and rapid gunfire in the background, you could tell it was a very serious situation that they were in. LRRP teams were made up of some very tough, very mean guys who normally didn’t get excited about being in contact with the enemy unless they were in a BIG jam, and these guys seemed VERY excited about this situation.

    LRRP’s (Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol), we called them “Sneaky Petes”, were usually a 6-man Ranger team that traveled light and fast. Being a Ranger in the U.S. Army wasn’t something just anybody could be. To get there, Rangers had to go through some extremely tough training and it meant you were one of the best if you made it through Ranger School. When they went into the field on missions they would only carry as much food, ammunition and gear as they could run with for long distances. They were capable of being some of the fiercest warriors in battle, but in most cases on these reconnaissance missions contact with the enemy was to be avoided so that as much intelligence as possible could be gathered about enemy’s movements of men and materials. If the LRRP team’s presence was discovered by the enemy during their mission though, they had to be extracted quickly because of their limited numbers and small amounts of ammo and supplies that they carried with them.

    These soldiers in the Hobo Woods were in big trouble, and we had to distract the bad guys long enough to get the pick-up helicopter into a landing zone (LZ) and then out again with the team still in one piece. The LRRP team leader reported they had two wounded, but not seriously. They were trying to move toward the designated landing zone that had been selected as their extraction point prior to commencing their mission. In warfare though, nothing ever goes as originally planned. In this case, the enemy force was between the Rangers and their pre-established LZ and that meant that they were going to have to change directions and move to an alternate LZ for pick-up. Hopefully, we could get them to one before they ran out of ammo or the enemy overwhelmed them.

    The first thing we had to do before we could proceed with giving them fire support with our Cobras and get them out was to sort out where everyone was. We called on the radio and had the LRRP’s pop a smoke grenade wherever they were so we could locate their exact position and then look for a new place to get the rescue ship in to get them. The six of them had taken cover around the base of a large tree and pointed outward like a six pointed star. The bad news was that the bad guys were estimated to be only 20-25 meters away. ****!!! “danger- close” firing was one of the most dangerous things we could do with our high explosive rockets. Rather than risk hurting any of the Rangers with our rockets because of the close proximity of friendly forces to the enemy, our high speeds and very low altitudes involved, we opted to use our nose turret’s miniguns. Any exploding munitions such as the Cobra’s 17 lb., 2.75” rockets or its 40 MM grenade launcher weren’t effective weapons that could be used in this case.

    The Cobra’s nose gun on the tandem seat, two-man helicopter was especially helpful in situations such as this. One of the two guns in the revolving nose turret was a six barreled, 7.62mm (.30 cal.) “Mini-Gun” capable of firing 4,000 rounds per minute. The other gun in the turret was a 40mm grenade launcher that fired explosive projectiles at 450 rounds per minute. The front-seat of the Cobra where the “peter-pilot” sat was the one that had the sight and firing controls for the turret guns. On missions like this it was his responsibility to place accurate mini-gun fire on any targets as required. Two Cobras both with working mini-guns could rain on the bad guy’s parade in a big way.

    We started hosing down the bad guy’s locations with our miniguns and told the Rangers to move-out as quickly as possible, it was getting late. Fortunately for these guys, there was another landing area not too far away from them where there was just enough room for a single helicopter get in and land. We relayed this information to them and gave them the map coordinates of the new LZ. By then it was only about an hour before it would be getting dark, and we were sure these fellows didn’t want to spend the night out there in the “Woods”.

    As it got closer to dusk the guns being pointed at us were becoming ever more evident. The NVA in the area had all come to life and were vigorously defending their locations. The ground was covered with the twinkling of muzzle flashes from various weapons all on full auto and the sky was filled with a myriad differently colored tracers flying up toward our aircraft. Luckily for us these guys hadn’t ever been duck hunters and didn’t know anything about leading a fast moving target so most of the shots went behind us. Keeping low and going fast was the best way to avoid their hastily aimed shots.

    Once a new landing zone was decided upon, we had to select the best way in and then the best different way out for the rescue ship, while trying to minimize their exposure to enemy gunfire. Since we were down on the trees at high speed, this meant they would have to roar in at full speed and at the last minute perform a maximum flare maneuver that would practically stand the helicopter on its tail while it decelerated and then drop it into the LZ for troop pick-up. Often when the LRRP teams were experienced and weren’t in too bad of a shape because of injuries, the pick-up ship would barely be on the ground for a moment before they would be on the go again, exiting the area at full speed. Rangers were experts at fast extractions and we all liked that.

    The pick-up helicopter that would be going in to get the LRRP’s was a UH-1 “Huey”, that we called a “Slick”. “Slick” drivers were a different breed that had to have nerves of steel to do what they did. It took a tremendous amount of skill and bravery to fly into the mostly hostile landing zones, which were very often barely big enough to get a helicopter into, and most frequently was ringed with bad guys who loved to shoot at helicopters. “Slicks” were only armed with two M-60 medium machine guns, one on each side. While the .30 caliber automatic guns provided some measure of protection for them, it didn’t often help enough if there were several hundred hostile individuals shooting at them from every direction. That’s where having the Cobras along came in handy.

    While the pick-up of the Rangers would be happening, our job was to suppress the enemy fire by responding to the Huey driver’s radio calls of enemy positions where he was taking fire from. They would call-out the location of the enemy’s fire by indicating the position of the clock off of their nose, with their nose being the twelve o’ clock position. They would say things like “Taking heavy fire from the tree line at three o’clock” for instance. You could usually tell how bad the amount of fire was by how many octaves the slick pilot’s voice went up when he made the radio call.

    While we had been setting all this up the slick had been holding at altitude in a racetrack pattern not too far away waiting for the call to make their approach. They’d been following the developments on the radio and were aware of the location of the new LZ. We had decided which way in would be best and had given the slick driver the instructions so he would be ready when the time came.

    Finally the beleaguered troopers made it to the new LZ shortly before dark and took shelter in bomb crater near the LZ. Unfortunately, the bad guys were right on their tail. With them hunkered down in the deep crater we could finally let loose with our heavy ordinance. We called for the slick to begin his approach as we began to lay down a heavy volley of rockets toward the enemy’s position. Each of our Cobras was 78 - 17 lb. warhead rockets. The 2.75 in dia. warhead on the rockets had an explosive capability similar to a 105 mm artillery round. On one occasion the Rangers screamed that a large group of NVA had just exited the tree line and were charging their location. We whipped our Cobra around and let loose with several rockets to try and halt the enemy’s approach. As the rockets left the tube aboard our aircraft it appeared as though the rockets were heading directly toward the Ranger’s bomb crater. We screamed on the radio for them all to duck just about the time the rockets buzzed over and exploded. To our amazement the Rangers came right back to us on the radio and begged for us to give them a few more rockets just like that. They’d been just right as far as they were concerned and had chased off all of the charging enemy.

    The slick hit the LZ just as the last of the daylight faded into night. They skidded to a stop just a few feet from the Ranger’s location and they all jumped on board within seconds. The slicked dumped the nose and accelerated away on the treetops at top speed. At times like that all the slick driver could do was zig and zag back and fourth and hope for the best. It didn’t seem to matter which way they went there were bad guys firing at them everywhere they turned. While all that was happening we were expending the rest of our ordinance at the enemy and I doubt many of them even knew the slick had arrived with all the explosions we were causing.

    We had done it! We got them out in one piece. Ranger Team 76 would live to fight another day. I can’t explain in words what a thrill it is to succeed at an endeavor like this. There were many times during this mission when it seemed that all was lost, but the toughness of the Rangers came through. Those guys never give up and they won’t leave one of their own behind. Working with them was a great experience for this young soldier.

    Unlike the previous couple of months of uneventful missions, this enemy group had seemed quite determined to stop the LRRP’s and their rescuers from leaving the area alive. This incident would only be a hint of things to come and a warning to us of a large determined enemy force in our vicinity that wasn’t quite ready for the war to be over just yet.

    …………………….We would know all too soon exactly of their hostile intentions.
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2010