Echoes from the Regiment’s Service in Vietnam 1966 – 1972
Don Snedeker, 11th ACVVC Historian
1st Qtr 2020
Finding the Bastards
Visual Reconnaissance: In June 1969, a North Vietnamese Army newspaper cautioned its readers that American scout helicopters “can fly very low or hover… We [the NVA] should be attentive to eliminating footprints in the mud when on operations in order to avoid discovery by these planes. If our soldiers are careless in camouflaging field fortifications, the wind from the helicopter rotors will blow the camouflage away and the enemy will see our fortifications.” The author of these words must have been a fortune teller, as he described perfectly a scenario that took place near the Cambodian border the following year. Some telltale Ho Chi Minh sandal prints were a dead giveaway for the Air Cav Troop scout pilot flying a mid-morning recon over an abandoned 1st Air Cav night defensive position (NDP) in November 1970. Even from the air, the sandal prints stood out, so the pilot hovered down to take a closer look. Rotor wash from his light observation helicopter (LOH) blew away a C-ration box, revealing a frightened enemy soldier in an abandoned bunker. While the scout observer kept his weapon on the unarmed VC, the pilot radioed for back-up and the Aero Rifle Platoon soon arrived. After securing the prisoner, they quickly searched the rest of the old NDP, uncovering two more members of the Propaganda and Training Section, VC Sub-Region 5 – all because a scout pilot paid attention to the footprints.
Reconnaissance-in-Force: While deployed in I Corps, west of Chu Lai in late September 1967, the 2nd Squadron S-3 (Operations), Major Philip Larkin and the Squadron Aviation Section Leader, Captain Roderick Heath, were flying over Golf Troop and Hotel Company on a reconnaissance-in-force operation when they noticed what looked to be some trees. But these ‘trees’ appeared to be moving. Upon closer inspection, the ‘trees’ turned out to be about 30 North Vietnamese Army soldiers in green uniforms with live vegetation tied to their backs. Hotel Company turned and charged on line, scattering the ‘trees’ in several directions. As the 2nd Squadron annual historical report for 1967 says: “Immediately, artillery and 90mm tank fire were directed upon the enemy. As the enemy fled west, H Company gave chase in what was termed to be a classic armor movement – tanks on line. With such a force in pursuit, the enemy commander lost control of his troops and 28 of them were killed, 3 were taken prisoner.”
Smelling: Blackhorse scouts could sometimes smell the enemy – the nuoc mam and rice diet, cooked over charcoal, made the enemy soldiers smell differently from GIs, and some aerial and ground scouts could tell when they were near just from smelling the air. For example, the Regiment was under the operational control of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) for most of the first half of 1970. The Division’s official after action report states: “A low level visual reconnaissance allows the sense of smell to be applied. In an area recently used by the enemy, an odor discernible to westerners often pervades the air.” Another report, published at about the same time, concluded that if available, the enemy “uses Nuoc Mam which has a tell-tale odor. Very often he will route the [cooking fire] smoke through tunnels away from his location or use charcoal, if available. At treetop level these odors can be identified by scout aircrews. Hospital areas can also be located because of associated odors.” Following the capture of 16 North Vietnamese Army prisoners near the Cambodian border in early 1970, Captain Lynn Hunt, the Bravo Troop Commander, said: “‘You can smell dinks, no matter what anybody says.’”
Captured Enemy Soldiers: Captured Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers and Chieu Hois (enemy soldiers who surrendered) were sometimes a good source of hard intelligence, but not always in a timely manner. For example, about midway through Operation Manhattan (29 April 1967) a captured VC told his 541st Military Intelligence Detachment interrogators that a headquarters element of some 400 VC were located in a tunnel system about 10 kilometers southeast of Dau Tieng, on the boundary between the 3rd Brigade, 1st (US) Infantry Division and the 11th ACR. First Squadron was sent to investigate, but hours of fruitless searching (without dismounted infantry) resulted in finding only several huts and one booby trap (with one Blackhorse Trooper wounded). They returned the following day with a battalion of dismounted infantry and found a base camp with still warm food, but only a few stay-behind VC whose job it was to cover the withdrawal of the enemy headquarters staff.
Captured Documents: During Operation Valdosta in September 1967, 3rd Squadron was operating west of Blackhorse Base Camp in the area south of Hung Nghia. The mission was to keep the roads open and the Viet Cong in their holes in order for the local villagers to cast their ballots in the national election. While conducting a reconnaissance-in-force 4 kilometers south of National Highway 1, Kilo Troop flushed a group of VC from a nondescript hut in the middle of a cultivated field. Two of the VC were killed, but the remainder got away into the surrounding jungle. What they left behind, however, was the most significant find of the day – medical supplies, a large cache of food, some equipment, and documents. Amongst the large bundle of documents were tax collection records for Highway 1 and a detailed list of VC sympathizers in the area. These documents proved that the area was a center of local VC activity, so Kilo Troop was sent back in the following day. Just 200 meters from the previous day’s contact, the Troopers engaged a group of about 40 VC who were intent on reestablishing their base of operations and supply caches. First Squadron’s Charlie Troop, most of the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry (9th (US) Infantry Division), and the 1st Battalion, 43rd (ARVN) Infantry Regiment piled on, and over the next few days uncovered a large number of enemy fortifications, base camps, and grave sites – all because the VC had left a stack of documents behind when they fled from that hootch.