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Old 03-04-2004, 20:11   #2
The Reaper
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All US Army helicopters were under the operational control of the air commander in the command and control helicopter. The only other air asset assigned to this mission was an Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC) who was to call for and coordinate fixed wing air assets should their participation be necessary.

Shortly before takeoff at dawn, SFC Shriver boarded the first helicopter. As the aircraft lifted off the ground for the flight, the B-52s were to be making final preparations for their bomb run against COSVN. At the same time the helicopters prepared to takeoff, the Huey carrying Capt. O'Rourke and 5 team members developed mechanical problems and was forced to abort the mission. Because of this, Capt. Cahill, the assistant ground commander, took over the responsibilities of ground commander for the remainder of the mission.

The original plan was for the helicopters to insert the team as the air strike's dust settled. Unfortunately, when the helicopters arrived at the designated coordinates, it was the wrong location. The aircraft flew around for 30 to 45 minutes searching for signs of dry bomb craters, which would mark the correct site. When the pilots finally found three dry ones, the helicopters descended in-trail toward them and landed. After the members of the Hatchet Force leaped off, the helicopters' pulled up and away from the landing zone (LZ) for their return flight to Quan Loi.

As soon as the landing force was on the ground, the men took cover in one of two craters located side by side and roughly 30 to 50 yards from the bunker complex. Immediately after discharging their passengers, the helicopters pulled up and away from the LZ. They had reached an altitude of only 20 feet above the ground when the NVA opened fire from concrete bunkers and entrenched positions with a withering barrage of gunfire wounding or killing those men who had not reached the safety of the craters.

From his position in the western-most bomb crater, Jerry Shriver radioed other team members stating that a machine gun bunker to his left front had his men pinned down and asked if anyone could fire at it to relieve the pressure. Capt. Cahill, 1st Lt. Marcantel and Sgt. Ernest C. Jamison, who had taken cover in the center crater, reported they were also pinned down and unable to help. The air commander notified the Hatchet Force that he was bringing in the gunships for air support. Immediately he directed all gunships to use their mini-guns and rockets to attack the NVA positions. Further, to make sure no short rounds or bombs hit our troops, all attack passes were made along the bunker line, not head on into it. As the aircraft made their attack passes, one of the door gunners noted that the bunkers were made of concrete.

From his vantage point overhead, Maj. Benjamin T. Kapp, Jr., the southern launch site's senior launch officer who was also in the command and control aircraft as coordinator to assist Lt. Col. Trabue should the situation necessitate it, observed the battle site. From his vantage point, Maj. Kapp could see the platoon members in the bomb craters. According to one report, he witnessed North Vietnamese machine guns firing into the bodies of the men lying in front of the enemy positions. These machine guns also covered the open ground covered in ankle-high brown grass with grazing fire effectively trapping the members of the exploitation platoon.

Approximately 10 to 15 minutes into the raging battle, Capt. Cahill heard SFC Shriver transmit over his radio that he and five Montagnard soldiers were going to enter the tree line on the west edge of the LZ in an effort to flank an enemy position. Paul Cahill observed the 6 men as they broke from the crater and ran across the 30 yards of open ground between the crater and the treeline. As the men raced through the low grass toward the trees, Jerry Shriver maintained radio contact with the command and control aircraft and Capt. Cahill continued to monitor their progress.

As he watched, Paul Cahill saw SFC Shriver being struck by several rounds of automatic weapons fire at the treeline and fall to the ground. At the same time, radio contact between Jerry Shriver and the command aircraft was severed in mid-sentence. During the remainder of the mission several attempts were made to reestablish radio contact with the exploitation platoon leader, however, all attempts failed. Later Paul Cahill reported he believed "Jerry Shriver was dead when he hit the ground."

Also early in the fierce fighting, Sgt. Jamison left the protection of the crater to retrieve one of the wounded Montagnards. The team medic reached the soldier, but was immediately struck by a burst of machine gun fire that killed him instantly. Later in the heat of battle, Capt. Cahill lifted his head above the crater rim to evaluate the situation and was struck in the mouth by an AK-47 round that deflected upward into his right eye. This resulted in his total blindness for the next 30 minutes and the permanent loss of his right eye.

At the same time the Hatchet Force was engaged in vicious combat, several other teams were conducting reconnaissance operations from CCS's northern launch site located at Ban Me Thuot. When it became apparent that the gunships on hand did not have the necessary firepower to adequately suppress the NVA enough to evacuate the survivors, those teams from the northern launch site already on the ground were ordered to find secure positions to remain in until further notice. When the teams acknowledged they were in safe locations, the gunships assigned for their protection were sent south to rescue the Hatchet Force. Those helicopters, whose aircrews were assigned to the US Air Force's 20th Special Operations Squadron, arrived at the COSVN battle site approximately an hour and a half later.

After the contingent of gunships grew from 4 to 8, 1st Lt. Harrigan requested all gunships to press their attack with rockets and mini-guns. The increased airpower was successful in stemming the NVA ground fire, but not in halting it. After the enemy's ground fire was suppressed, Greg Harrigan reported that over half his platoon was dead or wounded, and then continued to direct the aerial attacks for another 45 minutes before being mortally wounded himself.

Meanwhile, to bolster and support the Hatchet Force already on the ground, a reconnaissance team comprised of two Americans and four Montagnards was inserted into a third bomb crater located roughly 80 yards east of the other two craters and only 10 yards west of the nearest grove of trees. Their mission was to attempt to flank the NVA bunker line in order to drop grenades into the bunkers' firing slits or rear entrances. However, after being safely inserted into the crater, the recon team reported they were also pinned down by heavy and accurate automatic weapons fire and could not move.

All the while, the 8 gunships continued to rotate between the area of operation and the mission’s launch site to rearm/refuel and drop a continuous barrage of mini-gun and rocket fire on the entrenched enemy positions. Some time later in the day, 2 US Army Cobra gunships, call sign “Blue Max,” arrived onsite to add their firepower to that already being laid down by the Huey gunships. The Cobras were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 20th Artillery (ARA), Quang Loi, South Vietnam. When it became apparent to Lt. Col. Trabue that the 10 helicopters still did not have the necessary firepower, he radioed the FAC asking him to arrange for Air Force strike aircraft to assist in the operation. Shortly thereafter, the FAC notified the overall mission commander that “jet aircraft were not available to support this operation.”

Undeterred, Earl Trabue sent his request through the launch site's communication center to CCS Headquarters and then on to OPS 35, MACV-SOG. The end result was that a flight of US Air Force jet fighters arrived on station roughly 45 minutes later. After the fighters made several attack passes with bombs, rockets and machine gun fire, the survivors on the ground reported there was still too much enemy ground fire for an evacuation attempt to be made.

Weighing all the options and weapons available to him, Lt. Col. Trabue made the decision to use napalm against the NVA bunkers in an attempt to break the communists' grip on his beleaguered men. Once the decision was made, Lt. Col. Trabue requested the strike aircraft to make their napalm run along the line of concrete bunkers instead of over the heads of the Hatchet Force. After two napalm sorties, the Americans on the ground reported a sizable decrease in enemy activity and that it was now safe for them to be evacuated.

Immediately after the last napalm strike and after some 8 hours of brutal combat, all four recovery helicopters were able to dash in to extract the ground team. Three aircraft evacuated the Hatchet Force from their two craters and one recovered the recon team from the third. The battle site was ringed by clumps of trees with only two major openings in them, one approximately 20 yards wide on the northeast corner of the LZ and the other roughly 50 yards wide on the eastern end of the south side of the battle site near the eastern-most crater. Three of the pilots' made their approach from east to west. The pilots knew that because the treeline to the west was so close to the craters that they could not clear them with a heavy load, they swung their aircraft around so the tailboom's were pointing west in preparation for departing to the east. The forth helicopter entered the LZ through the gap in the trees at the northeast corner, set down close to the last crater and also departed through the east-southeastern gap in the trees.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - President Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

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