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"Pucker Missions"

Source: Gary Dombroski "Hawk 21"

The missions I was involved with occurred on two separate days, about six days apart. One of the unusual things about these missions is our fire team on both days had three aircraft commanders and flight leads in the two aircraft. I have forgotten who performed as the flight lead; CW2 Fred Schattauer (Hawk 22) and I (Hawk 21) flew as the wingman with me in the front seat on both occasions.

The first "pucker mission" originated out of Quang Tri. We joined with the Huey and were advised we could shoot at anything that shoots at any of our aircraft. Turning west, we entered the north end of the Ashau Valley. The Huey reported that he was going to descend to a lower altitude; we were to stay about 500 feet above him. He would be maneuvering back and forth through some small valleys and low terrain. He also advised us to be ready for almost anything.

Initially, the mission went on without incident. Probably, thirty minutes later or so we started following a river valley to the north. As the river turned to the east, the Huey slowed and made a couple of orbits in the area. As it turned to continue further north, someone came on one of the radios and said "Welcome to the tri-border area." On the south and east side of the river, we were still in South Viet Nam. On the North side - North Viet Nam, and to the West was Laos.

The Huey went a couple of miles further to the north, then returned to the area they had previously orbited around. The jungle on the hill on the southeast side of the river suddenly became nearly invisible due to the number of muzzle flashes and small arms tracers being shot from that hill. The Huey turned away quickly and both of the Hawk aircraft rolled in for a rocket run. Plenty of potential targets - it looked like there were a couple of thousand muzzle flashes. (They all appeared to be small arms, so as long as we stayed at least a 1000 meters or more away from the area we probably wouldn?t take many hits).

The Huey told us to keep engaging the area. He also called an Air Force Controller in the area and requested Air Force assets be brought into the fight. We continued shooting until we each only had a couple pair of rockets left. (We would hold onto them in case we got into trouble on the way home). Exited the area to the south. An OV-10 Bronco was entering the area along the same route, heading north. One of the Colonels briefed the Bronco pilot on the location and action we saw. The FAC rogered the briefing and continued to the area. As we continued back to Quang Tri, we could hear the FAC talking to some fast-movers that had been called in. Before we had to change frequencies, I heard the FAC call in at least six teams of F-4s and A1-E "Spad" Sky Raiders. Best we could tell that area took a good pasting that day.

Upon landing, the Huey crew found 6 new bullet holes in the aircraft. Neither of the Hawk aircraft had been hit. The Colonels thanked us (over the radio) and released to return home.

For the next few days, other Hawk Fire teams we assigned to escort these Colonels. There was some discussion each night back at the O Club bar regarding where these Colonels were going and how dangerous these missions were. Luckily, no Hawk aircraft took any hits and the Huey got out of the area each time. About the sixth day, it was our turn again,

This time we departed Phu Bai with instructions to join up with the Huey in the vicinity of Khe Sanh. As we approached Khe Sanh, we established contact with the Huey and started westbound again. Crossed the Ashau Valley at altitude and continued westbound for some period of time. In a couple of locations, they requested we do a "recon by fire" to see if we could draw enemy fire. The only thing that happened was both of my turret weapons jammed (so I was along for the ride again). Continuing to the west, the Huey reported he was going to follow a river valley in front of us. This time we were to come down to nearly the same altitude and follow in loose trail formation behind him. Into the valley we went, the Huey was lead, our fire team leader was about 500 meters behind him and Fred and I took up a position about 500 to 700 meters behind our team lead.

Cruising up the river around 60 to 70 knots, Fred and I (at least) heard something that sounded like I was firing the 40mm grenade launcher. It had a "thunka" "thunka" "thunka" sound that seemed to occur at about the same rate heard during firing of the grenade launcher - but it sounded somewhat louder than we expected. Fred asked me if I was shooting. I reminded him both of my turret weapons had jammed earlier, so the noise was not coming from us. We looked around to see what we could see.

Out our left side, we were passing what looked to be a fairly modern village with two to three story buildings that appeared to be in pretty good condition. A bunch of muzzle flashes were coming from the high ground to our left and we could see one huge muzzle flash occurring near the outskirts of the "village." It didn't take long to figure out that muzzle flash occurred at about the same rate as the sound we were hearing and that it was (apparently) a very big anti-aircraft gun shooting down at our flight.

I guess the Huey and our other aircraft figured the situation out about the same time because they (and we) accelerated to about 110 to 120 knots. The river turned east a little further to the north - all aircraft made that right turn. The Colonels wanted to come back around from another direction to take another look. We told them that our fuel was now getting very low (which was true) and we could not stick around to support another look (which we wanted no part of). Okay - we will start back toward Quang Tri.

As we cleared the mountains closest to Quang Tri, our 10% Fuel Caution light illuminated (indicating we had about 20 minutes fuel remaining on board).. Fred reported that fact to our lead and the Huey. Our lead came back and said his 10% Fuel Caution light had been flickering on and off, but had now come on steady. The Huey released us to beat feet for Quang Tri POL, so we sucked in as much power as we felt comfortable with - leaving the Huey well behind us. As we neared Quang Tri, lead reported our fuel status to and requested landing directly to the POL area.

We got to the POL area with our fuel gauges showing near zero fuel. Each of us hovered up to a refueling point - we were finally SAFE!! As Fred lowered the collective the engine flamed out (due to fuel starvation). A few seconds later, lead's engine flamed out (for the same reason. Needless to say we had cut this one very close. As we were refueling, the Huey landed and taxied over to POL. The Huey pilot asked why we had shut down to refuel (which was unusual because we normally "Hot Refueled." One of the back-seaters explained we had both flamed out on the pad. All the Huey pilot had to say was "Oh, guess it was a good thing you left us when you did." Refueled and headed back to Phu Bai after a tense couple of hours.

As I said in the initial paragraph, these Colonels were shot down and died a few days later. Never got the full story regarding what happened during their last mission. I did feel very sorry they and (especially) the Huey crew perished. I was also somewhat relieved to know we probably wouldn't be doing many more missions like these. The only missions that came close to being as dangerous as these were some Project Delta missions we did periodically afterward. Luckily, we only did a few of those during the rest of my tour.

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