Sunday, June 10, 2012

 I was recently browsing YouTube when I happened upon a series of video slideshows featuring a Vietnam War era recording of a helicopter rescue operation which I had read about many years ago in the book "Secret Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines with the Elite Warriors of SOG " by former SOG recon team leader John L. Plaster.

 Major Plaster, USAR (ret.), served three 1-year tours in Southeast Asia with the top secret Special Forces covert operations unit, MACV-SOG. Qualified as a paratrooper and a Green Beret weapons and communications NCO, he led intelligence-gathering recon teams deep behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

 Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) was a highly classified, multi-service United States special operations unit which conducted covert unconventional warfare ops prior to and during the Vietnam War.

 Plaster’s 22 cross-border ground missions include one of SOG’s most successful, the night ambush of a North Vietnamese truck convoy and seizure of an important enemy prisoner in Laos. Wounded once and decorated for heroism four times, in 1970 Plaster was selected to fly Covey missions with USAF Forward Air Controllers, and accumulated more than 350 aerial combat missions. It was as a "Covey Rider" that Plaster took part in directing the rescue efforts in this double Prairie Fire in Laos.

One of the big differences about SOG, was that most of their operations were top secret cross-border ops carried out along the uber-dangerous Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia where SOG recon teams performed critically important missions such as area recons hunting for enemy sanctuaries and base camps, bomb damage assessments (BDA), prisoner snatches, intelligence gathering, wire taps, sensor deployments, interdiction and harassment of enemy transports and road building crews, and psychological operations of all kinds. While the NVA and Vietcong were constantly referred to by the media as "the illusive enemy" in South Vietnam, in their Laotian and Cambodian border sanctuaries, and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the SOG recon teams nearly always encountered them in large well-armed numbers.

 The small 8 to 10 man recon teams (RTs) were actively hunted by well trained enemy counter-recon units & trackers with dogs, and if the trackers found them, they would be surrounded and attacked en-masse, or in some cases held in position while anti-aircraft guns were moved into position around them to shoot-down the helicopters the enemy knew would come to rescue any trapped recon team.

 The recon teams might have a "team emergency" where one of the team members became sick or injured, or find themselves in a "tactical emergency" where they were in peril of being discovered, perhaps in the case where an enemy force had inadvertently moved into the recon team's area of operations (AO) overnight.

 But if a recon team was in contact, fleeing contact, and/or about to be overrun, they would declare a "Prairie Fire" emergency, and all air assets in the vicinity would be redirected to come to their aid. If the team was bloodied and carrying multiple wounded, and unable to fight their way to an LZ, a "Bright Light" team may have to be deployed to help them break clear.

 However, massive airpower in support of a recon team in trouble was (usually) not available for teams operating in Cambodia, where bombers were barred from participating in rescue operations, the rescue forces' offensive capabilities were limited to helicopter gunships and any artillery batteries which may have been in range from across the border in South Vietnam.

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 By kind permission of Major Plaster, I have transcribed the text from his book (Secret Commandos) which is pertinent to the Prairie Fire recording, and I hope that the readers will gain a bit of perspective both to the men on the ground facing the unimaginable dangers of sneaking around in the enemy's backyard, and the men in the sky who put it all on the line running the enemy's gauntlet of anti-aircraft and small-arms fire in order to bring the recon teams home. For all involved it was dangerous business, and business was always brisk.
This was a secret war, and the enemy wanted to protect their secrets at all costs. 
 
  Recorded by a Huey crew, the recording documents a rescue operation across the border in Laos, where not one, but two recon teams, first RT Hawaii, and then a short time later, ten miles away, RT Colorado faced Prairie Fire emergencies on the same day. I have converted the audio from the YouTube videos to the mp3 format, and edited them back into a single file, from which I edited out a section which had somehow been repeated, cut out some patches of dead-air, and filtered out a substantial amount of hiss from the audio which makes it much easier to understand the transmissions. I would like to acknowledge the work of others who posted information on the "Prairie Fire x2" in online forums, which became the basic outline for this blog, where I have tried to add a more concentrated and interactive version of the story combined with the text from "Secret Commandos" and the enhanced version of the recording.
The recording begins just as the White Flight hueys are turning in for the landing zone where RT Hawaii is holding their own.

 I recommend first reading the excerpts from Secret Commandos, and then listening to the recording with headphones, preferably in a darkened room.



 Considering the tremendously dangerous nature of a large scale rescue operation across the fence in Laos, some of the comments you will hear in the background are quite interesting; pilots talking about awards, the FAC reminding the personnel at the launch site at Dak To to be standing-by to rearm and refuel the choppers, a pilot who says one of his gunners found shrapnel from the exploding ordnance of the close air support in the fold of his trousers, and some very professional guidance from a seasoned gunship pilot as he vectors the rescue choppers to the landing zone.

My heartfelt thanks go out to all allied vets from every service, their families, and our fallen heroes.


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Here is a short glossary which may help some of the terminology from the text and the recording make more sense.

Bravo Hotel - Ben Het Special Forces camp

Bright Light Team - A SOG recon team serving a week-long deployment at a forward operating base (FOB) as an on-call rescue force for downed aircrews, POWs, and recon teams. In some cases, all too often, their grim mission would be to fight their way into hot areas to recover bodies. They were also used to rearm and refuel helicopter assets at the FOB.

CAR-15 - Colt 629 automatic rifle--(XM177E2) a folding stock, submachine gun version of the M-16 rifle.

Charlie - Vietcong/North Vietnamese army soldiers

Covey - USAF Forward Air Control call sign, usually flying a Cessna 0-2 Skymaster or North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco aircraft

Covey Rider - Special Forces flight personnel, usually a former Recon One-Zero, assigned as liaison between recon teams and Covey pilots
 
Delta Papa Three - John Plaster's radio call sign while flying as Covey Rider

Delta Tango - Dak To FOB/Launch site

Foxtrot Mike - FM radio frequency

Ho Chi Minh Trail - Laotian/Cambodian road system used by the NVA to move munitions, weapons, supplies, and troops from North Vietnam, to staging areas along the Laotian/Cambodian borders with South Vietnam

KIA - Killed in action

Kilo November - Known North. Position is "Kilo November"

Kingbees - Sikorsky H-34 helicopters usually flown by Vietnamese Air Force pilots

Lurch - Personal nickname of David Mixter, killed in action on 29 January 1971

One-One  - Recon Assistant Team leader

One-Two  - Recon Team radio operator

One-Zero - Recon Team leader

Panthers - 361st Aviation Company(Escort) "Pink Panthers" - US Army AH-1G Cobra gunship flight

Panther 36 - Lead Cobra Gunship pilot

Plasticman - John Plaster's radio call sign while One-Zero of a recon team

Pop Smoke - To deploy either a colored smoke grenade, or white phosphorus grenade to mark a unit's position
.
RPG - Rocket propelled grenade

Shoebox - Radio call sign of Covey Rider Ken Carpenter

Skyraider - Douglas A-1 single seat piston-powered, propeller-driven attack aircraft flown by USAF and VAF

Straw Hat - Code name for American personnel on a recon team

Tango Papa - Pat Mitchel's call sign as recon team One-Zero

Uniform - UHF radio frequency

VC - Vietcong--South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) regular force/guerrilla soldiers, may also refer to NVA soldiers

Victor - VHF radio frequency

White Flight - Bell UH-1 Iroquois rescue helicopters (aka "Huey")

White Lead - Radio call sign of the Lead ship of the White Flight rescue choppers

Willy Pete - White phosphorus (WP), incendiary munitions which burst into burning flakes of phosphorus when exposed to oxygen. WP grenades were often used to mark a unit's position due to its instantaneously billowing white smoke

Yards - Montagnards, Vietnamese indigenous hilltribe recon team personnel recruited and trained by the Special Forces


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Forward from "Secret Commandos"

There was a chill in the northern Wisconsin air, that October afternoon of 1998. Bayfield County's apple harvest was underway, and colorful leaves converted my roadway into a sublime cathedral through which I drove to the Iron River post office. On Main Street, I waved to neighbors who as readily waved back. Inside her tiny office, the postal clerk, Peggy, handed me a small package.
  Postmarked, Quantico, Virginia, it was from FBI Special Agent Barry Subelsky, a friend and--like me--a former Green Beret. This was curious--I hadn't expected anything from Barry. After an hour running errands, I drove home with the box on the seat beside me. Retrieving it from my truck, I opened it to find an old cassette tape and Barry's note: "John, here's a recording of radio messages, apparently a recon team in trouble in Laos. Where and when isn't certain."
  He'd recently found the tape among some forgotten Vietnam War memorabilia. Barry couldn't remember how he got it. "Maybe you can tell from the jargon," he continued, "if this was SOG," meaning the Studies and Observations Group, which ran top secret missions along the Laotian Ho Chi Minh Trail. He'd been stationed at Ben Het, a remote camp near the border, so that was entirely possible.
  Digging around, I found an old cassette player, slipped in the tape, sat back and pushed "play."
  A radio voice called breathlessly, "Prairie Fire! Prairie Fire!"--SOG code words for a team in such terrible straits that they were about to be overrun.
  The voice raised the hairs on my neck. 
  Then came a calmer voice, "This is Delta Papa-Three..."
  And I realized exactly what this recording was. I turned off the lights, and sat in the dark. Listening.
  It was, I knew, 29 January 1971, the day we lost David Mixter and almost lost his teammates Pat Mitchel and Lyn St. Laurent. That was Pat's voice calling "Prairie Fire! Prairie Fire!"
  Recon Team Colorado's eight men had been hit by a North Vietnamese forty-man platoon near a major enemy supply road in Laos. But ten miles away, Recon Team Hawaii, with my old teammates Les Dover, Regis Gmitter, and John Justice, also had been hit and declared a Prairie Fire Emergency. I could not go to the aid of both teams. Hearing my own voice, it was as if I was back there, where there was no time, but I had to make decisions.
  And live with them.
  Closing my eyes, listening to the lead gunship, Panther 36's radio voice, I could actually see his Cobra gunship down on the deck, dodging green tracers to fire rockets and strafe. Then the White Flight (rescue) Hueys were driven off by ground fire, and we'd brought in A-1 Skyraider attack planes.
  It was all on the tape, exactly as it had happened.

I could not sleep that night.
  The memories were fresh again, of that operation, of many operations, inspiring a thousand other recollections that swept across me--anguish, humor, fear, pride, and memories of the fine men I'd known and served beside. They were hilarious days, horrifying days, unforgettable days.
  The years had passed, but my memories of those men seemed as fresh as on the day it all had happened.


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Excerpt from "Secret Commandos", January 29th, 1971...

That January had been fairly wet over southern Laos, but late in the month the weather turned and early one afternoon I couldn't believe the perfect skies. Flying in an OV-10 with Capt. Mike Cryer, returning after lunch at Pleiku, we found stunningly clear heavens, horizon to horizon, like one of those dreamy days when you were a kid and loved to play baseball. As we neared Ben Het, Cryer switched our radio frequency so I could check in with Ken Carpenter, flying the midday shift in the O-2.
  We caught him in mid-transmission, asking,"... and where's the fire coming from?" I sat up, craned my neck, and looked far ahead in that perfect sky to where little dots flitted like mosquitoes. A tense voice whispered, "Northwest, Covey, hit northwest seventy-five meters." I knew that voice--Regis Gmitter. It was my old team, RT Hawaii.
  Clear weather, thank God, I thought. We'll need it for bombing.
  Cryer shoved the throttles full forward, heading directly toward that distant, little storm amid a perfect sky, where aircraft dived and smoke arose from bursting rockets. I will never forget the following hour, not only because of what happened but because, unknowingly, our radio transmissions were recorded by a Huey crew, a complete account that would reach me almost thirty years later.
  As our OV-10 overtook the Hueys, Carpenter quickly briefed me: "We got the team to a short ladder LZ, Hueys are almost here, Cobras already on-station, firing. A-1s about ten minutes out. They had contact forty minutes ago, been running ever since. An RPG hit one Yard. No fire yet at the LZ. It's yours if you're ready Plasticman."
  I radioed,"Got it, Shoebox." His O-2 turned away.
  I had great faith in my old teammates Les Dover, John Justice, and Regis Gmitter, and in our air team of Cobras, Hueys, and Covey. The most critical factor was speed, getting them out quick before the enemy could rush dozens, maybe hundreds of soldiers to the scene, to assault the team, or shoot down helicopters. Eying high ground just beyond where I saw RT Hawaii's orange panel, I warned the Lead Cobra--Panther 36--"You can expect possible ground fire on those hillsides to the north."
  At almost the same instant, Gmitter called, "You guys are taking ground fire!"
  "I'm bringing in the Cobras right now," I replied, "a heavy gun team. Give us an azimuth and distance." As Panther 36 turned inbound, I relayed from Gmitter, "Ground fire is generally north and northwest."
  Panther 36 reported, "Were to the south, we'll make south to north gun runs, with right-hand breaks." To reduce the time gap between the Cobras and the Hueys--led by White Lead--I had his birds immediately begin descending.
  Everyone stayed off the radios those crucial seconds, listening for any reports of ground fire. I saw White Lead level off just above the trees a mile south, as two Cobras pummeled the northern hillside with rockets and minigun fire.
   Panther 36 radioed, "White Lead. No fire down here. We're ready for you."
   Then a breathless voice cried my formal call sign: "Delta Papa-Three! Delta Papa-Three! Tango Pa--"--cut out by White Lead on the same frequency. I radioed Gmitter, "White Lead will be down in a moment, get your people together and let's get out of there, quick."
  A desperate voice shrieked, "Covey-Covey! Covey-Covey!"--this time cut out by Panther 36 transmitting as he vectored the approaching Huey into the LZ.
  I radioed Gmitter, "Did you attempt to call me?"
  "Negative-negative."
  I looked at the other call signs and immediately I knew, a terrible stab in my guts: It was RT Colorado, Pat Mitchel's team, ten miles southwest. More than anything in the world I wanted to be in two places at once, rescuing two teams. Here below me, in great danger, was my old team, and the other beseeching voice was RT Colorado. No matter how bad it was, he had to wait.
  I saw White Lead on the treetops, nearing RT Hawaii's yellow smoke--Mitchel's breathless voice interrupted, "Plasticman! Plasticman!" I could not ignore him again and warned, "I have a team in a Prairie Fire right now. As quickly as possible I'll send you a light gun team."
  Those first minutes in a gunfight can be life and death, I reminded Mike Cryer on the intercom. Our OV-10 had a full load of fourteen high explosive rockets and 2,000 rounds of 7.62 mm, we agreed to rush to RT Colorado as soon as we got RT Hawaii on the choppers. I radioed Mitchel, "I will attempt to send aid as quickly as possible. What is your situation right now?"
  "Prairie Fire! Prairie Fire! Prairie Fire!"
  "Roger, I copy" That's all I could do. Each passing second I knew, meant more shots, more RPGs, maybe more lost men. We had two teams in Prairie Fire, the assets already committed to one, all the choppers on-station, gunships on the deck. I had to focus here, get this right, first.
  A Cobra turned in front of the Huey as it neared RT Hawaii. "Taking Fire!" White lead called. Door gunners opened up and a Cobra riddled the treetops. In danger of being shot down, White Lead's Huey pulled out. This was going to take some time. I radioed Panther 36: "I've got another team in Prairie Fire, can you take over this extraction?"
  Coming out of a gun run, he responded, "Negative. If you leave we won't get A-1s." One Huey had almost been shot down, the A-1s were at least five minutes out, and all we had were four Cobras. I understood and looked southwest, to the hills where I knew RT Colorado was fighting for its life and silently urged, Hold out, guys, hold out.
  White Lead came around. Mitchel, breathless from carrying a wounded teammate, gasped again into the radio. All I could do was repeat, "I have a Prairie Fire in progress. If possible, evade, evade." The gunships were lined up again and White Lead shifted his approach to put more trees between him and the earlier ground fire. Lead spotted the team's panel and flared to land.
  I radioed Mitchel again, "I cannot depart yet. Do your best to hold out."
  I watched White Lead ease down into a hole in the treetops and kick out ladders. Gmitter shouted, "Taking ground fire!" The door gunners blasted with their M-60s, and the Cobras fired rockets and miniguns danger-close. That brave son-of-a-bitch White Lead stayed right there until he got half of the team. Momentarily the second Huey went in to get the rest. I radioed Panther 36, "Sayonara, I'm departing with the OV-10." I told him to meet me at RT Colorado as soon as he was finished here, then told White Lead to take his Hueys back to Dak To, rearm, refuel, and prepare to launch immediately.
  Mike Cryer shoved the OV-10 throttles full forward. I radioed Mitchel, "I am en route to your location, will be there in three minutes."
  For the first time in twenty minutes, Pat Mitchel thought there was a chance he'd get his men out--at least his badly wounded One-Two Lyn St. Laurent. It was too late already for David Mixter, who lay dead a dozen feet away. Mitchel and St. Laurent were alone. The NVA were less than fifty yards away and Mitchel could hear them calling to one another.
  It had all begun forty minutes earlier. Just after lunch RT Colorado had climbed a ridge and come upon a new sandbag bunker with freshly cut bamboo and footprints everywhere. Their approach had sent the NVA running, Mitchel suspected. Walking at the rear of the column, Sergeant Mixter and a Yard, Wdot, noticed a line of fresh bunkers in the distance.
  Mitchel signaled to get away fast, but they were in a bamboo grove, the ground covered with husks crunchier than dried leaves. To move quietly they followed a narrow dirt path, and had traveled five minutes when Sergeant St. Laurent, RT Colorado's radio operator, heard Covey Rider Carpenter reacting to RT Hawaii's emergency. St. Laurent alerted Mitchel, who decided it was best to lay up and hide until that was resolved. They crept off the trail and down a little ledge, put out claymores and got in a semicircle.  St. Laurent sat in the middle with the radio.
  For a few minutes they sat there silently while St. Laurent monitored the radio. Then Pin, a Yard lying beside Mitchel, leaned over, eyes wide, and whispered, "VC." Everyone lay flat, hoping the NVA would pass them by. St. Laurent heard brush breaking.
  KA-BOOM!--an RPG exploded--then five claymores--BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! AKs and CAR-15s blended into one wild intermix of close-range fire. St. Laurent couldn't believe he was still alive. The fire peaked, then dropped.
  Queerly, it was quiet again. 
  RT Colorado's bursting claymores and concentrated fire had repulsed the assault, leaving dead and wounded NVA scattered in the jungle before them. Mitchel waved his hand to withdraw before the enemy could reorganize for a second attack. Dave Mixter rolled to his knees, spotted an NVA raising an RPG--they fired simultaneously--Ba-ba-ba-bang!--KA-BOOM!--the gunner fell dead and his rocket exploded at Mixter's knees.   Mixter crumpled forward, riddled with terrible wounds. He was dead, One-Zero Mitchel could see.
  Then St. Laurent gasped, "I'm hit." RPG fragments had torn into his chest and a leg, along with an AK slug that had hit his right forearm and biceps, leaving his arm hanging uselessly. Worse yet, as Mitchel knelt beside St. Laurent, all their Yards ran off, abandoning them.
  KA-BOOM! KA-BOOM! Two more RPGs exploded. They had to get to better cover.
  Mitchel threw St. Laurent down a six-foot embankment, then rolled after him and, peeking over the top every twenty seconds, began treating his wounds and pausing to shoot his CAR-15 or 40MM grenade launcher at the enemy. The NVA would have swarmed over them already, Mitchel thought, except they were busy treating and carrying off their own wounded. That could end any second, especially when NVA reinforcements arrived. Unable to both fight and carry St. Laurent, Mitchel knew his only hope was to get Covey overhead and start putting air on the NVA. Taking over the radio, Mitchel spoke with me, then injected St. Laurent with morphine, and waited. In those lonely minutes, he and St. Laurent had made a pact: Rather than be taken alive, they would kill each other.
   As the groan of the OV-10 engines sounded overhead, Mitchel finished stemming the worst of St. Laurent's bleeding. He looked over the embankment again and saw David Mixter's body, not ten yards away. Mixter's biggest fault had always been his size--six foot five. Other One-Zeros didn't want him because they worried about what would happen if he were seriously wounded; how would they carry him? Despite their disparate sizes--as dramatically different as Mutt and Jeff--Mitchel so admired Lurch's spirit that he took him anyhow. And now, what could he do?
  I radioed, "This is Plasticman. Pop smoke. Where do you want our fire?"
  The NVA were still so close that Mitchel could hear their voices.  "No can talk," he whispered. "two of us together. Charlie is dead on our ass." But he did pop a grenade, and I saw his smoke on the treetops. Then Mitchel whispered, "Hit fifty meters south."
  As Cryer positioned our OV-10 for the first run, Mitchel warned that his Yards had run off and he was afraid we might hit them. I did not share his compassion. "The Yards made their choice. Now get your heads down. We're coming in hot."
  Cryer rolled in, nearly touching the treetops as we strafed and fired four rockets. "Bring it closer, closer," Mitchel requested. I warned, "Get your head down, we're doing it again." With that pass the NVA began firing at our plane, but Cryer performed magnificently, pressing low and disregarding ground fire to put those rockets and tracers where RT Colorado needed them.
  For the first time I heard animation in Mitchel's voice. "That was Number One. Now do it 360 degrees."
  As we finished our next series of passes, Panther 36 arrived with his Cobra wingman, adding their considerable firepower to the effort. Momentarily, pounded by rockets and miniguns, the enemy pulled off just a bit. If we stood any chance of getting Mitchel and St. Laurent out alive, we had to exploit the break and move right away. I radioed, "Are you capable of carrying your wounded?"
  Mitchel realized that St. Laurent was badly hit and he'd need help to walk but Lurch was there, too, only a few yards away. David Mixter had died saving their lives. "I'm with Lurch," Mitchel radioed. "I can still see Lurch, I can't leave him."
  I shared the anguish in Mitchel's voice and dreaded the idea of leaving Mixter's body, but the last thing Pat needed was to hear my grief. I pounded my fist hard on the canopy, then, regaining control, put on a calm, almost fatherly tone. "You can't be worried about the dead right now. We've got to be concerned about the living. Now get moving." With great regret, Mitchel turned away from Mixter's body, put an arm around St. Laurent and led him south while the Cobras and our OV-10 rocketed and strafed their backtrail, hitting it as hard as we could.
  Already I'd contacted the Bright Light team at Dak To and had them board two chase helicopters, putting our Special Forces medic in White Lead so he could begin treating St. Laurent immediately--if Pat could make it to the LZ. If that proved impossible, I'd have the Bright Light team land and fight their way through to what remained of RT Colorado.
  Then three Vietnamese A-1s arrived and I sent Panther 36 back to refuel and rearm. Cryer put half the A-1 ordnance in the area where RT Colorado had fought, then used the fighters sparingly to preoccupy the enemy while Mitchel carried St. Laurent 500 yards to the extraction LZ.
  Forty minutes later all the choppers were back, ready to extract Mitchel and St. Laurent, who had reached the LZ. Mitchel was composed though exhausted. When Cryer began using a fresh pair of USAF A-1s to prep the area around the LZ, all of the missing Yards showed up, drawn to the sound of aircraft engines. Mitchel put them to work, helping him carry St. Laurent to the first extraction Huey. Living by the recon ethic, Mitchel was the last man to leave the LZ. Thanks to our heavy prep, we got them out with almost no ground fire.
  The badly wounded St. Laurent was medevaced. Mitchel would lead two more missions, then serve as a medic in the dispensary.
 The next morning, Captain Cryer, flew with Larry White to insert the Bright Light team to look for Lurch. They found Mixter's hat and a huge pool of blood. That was all. The NVA had even gathered all the expended cartridges.