Behind BAEK MA 9
by: Ron Strickland
Feb 68 – Feb 69
"On 11 October 1968, a division size combat assault began in connection with "BAEK MA 9", on 13 October "BAEK MA 9" started in the mountains south of Nha Trang. The results of 'BAEK. MA 9 were: 380 KIA, 9 POW's, 92 small arms captured, three (3) 82mm mortars, six (6) 60mm mortars captured 4 AR's 22,321 rounds of small arms ammunition, 84 rounds of other ammo, 160 grenades, 4 radios, 22 rifle grenades and 19 protective mask seized." (1 Jan-31 Dec Annual Suppl. History of 48th ASH)
This single paragraph in the 1968 Unit History of the 48th Assault Helicopter Company just does not do justice to what actually happened and the story behind it.
An expanded history behind the action is as follows.
The city of Nha Trang was located between the ocean and a fairly large size mountain. The mountain is riddled with numerous caves extending through from one side to the other with multiple openings on all sides. (That is a significant point to take note of) The local VC would periodically drag a mortar tube to the mouth of the cave and lob a few mortar shells into the Nha Trang district. The local RVN military had learned to just live with it as a minor annoyance. Although the Nha Trang district fell within the 29th Regiment, 9th ROK area of responsibility, the only real action against the caves was when the local RVN training unit in Nha Trang would send a student patrol out to get some firsthand experience of being shot at. 2
This operation really started when our mission was to take the 9th ROK Commanding General to Nha Trang one evening for a cocktail/dinner party for the local military and civilian big wigs. We arrived a little before dark in #348, dropped off the CG and his aides, and settled in at the Stage Coach Ops to wait for a 10:30 to 11:00 pm return flight. About 9 pm up drives the CG and aides ready to return to Ninh Hua . A blind man could tell that something wasn’t sitting well with the CG and it wasn’t because we were slow getting strapped in and cranked up. Other than calling for clearance there wasn’t much chatter in the aircraft on the way home.
The next day, being the curious sort, I called the liaison we had with the division. A gentlemanly fella if I remember right. He later became the CO of our company if I remember right. He related that apparently the local Vietnamese District Chief, imbibing a little too much of the local brew, took it upon himself to announce that "If the Koreans were doing their job, Nha Trang wouldn’t be mortared every freaking night", or something to that effect.
As one could imagine, this wouldn’t set well with the Commanding General of a Korean Division. Even worse, it was coming from a Vietnamese which the Koreans considered a form of sub-species anyway. Looking the Vietnamese official straight in the eye, he coldly announced that in 30 days the official would find the mortar tubes on the steps to his office. Turning on his heel, he stormed out of party and back to the aircraft they came.
That started one of the most productive operations for the White Horse Division to that date. The first action their G-3 did was to obtain the "after action reports" from the French military when they were in that area. If nothing else the reports would tell them 3
what "not to do". That being historically the time honored tradition of the French military. The French apparently would attack the cave area and have absolutely no success. The problem being that a frontal attack against the mouth of the caves would be for naught. The VC would simply retreat out the numerous exits on the other side of the mountain, wait until the French watching the mouth of the cave would run out of wine and cheese, get tired, and go home. Then the VC would meander back into the caves and resume lobbing mortars at Nah Trang.
Recognizing the fault in the French approach, the plan devised by the 9th ROK, G-3 Ops was to assign each of the three regiments a specific task. First, one regiment would assume temporary responsibility for the entire Phan Rang to Tuy Hoa area. The second regiment would assume positions encircling the mountain in rings of troops. The third regiment then was left to do the actual frontal assault against the mouth of the caves. Any VC attempting to escape out the rear of the cave would be picked up by the regiment encircling the mountain.
Expectedly, Blue Star was busy as hell repositioning the 3 regiments into their assigned positions. If memory serves me, the 28th regiment took over the rear area. The 29th drew the task of setting up circular perimeters around the mountain. This left the 30th to wait until time for the actual assault. As was normal for that part of Vietnam, as soon as the regiments were in place the weather turned to s**t. Members of the "assault regiment" and the "home guard" were ok and had plenty of supplies. But the Korean soldiers whose miserable assignment was to encircle the mountain were in a major bind. Expecting the full assault to begin fairly quickly, those soldiers took only minimum rations. Resupply 4
to them now became a dictated by the weather and became a "catch as catch can" situation.
The Koreans were unusually organized for this operation. I kept thinking that maybe it was because the CG was looking forward with relish to shoving the mortar tubes up some Vietnamese’s ass. The Koreans even put a radio man onboard most of the resupply aircraft. He would be able to show approximate troop location on the map for each sling load and what smoke color to expect to identify the correct troop element for each drop. The situation quickly became dire as the clouds continued to roll in off the ocean.
It was obvious that the Korean G-3 was becoming more and more concerned about the lack of resupply to the troops. But, they were not nearly as concerned as the poor troops in the jungle. Our only option was to stand off a ways with a sling load, wait for the clouds to break, find a narrow opening, and make a mad dash to where the radio man was pointing on the map. But, keeping aircraft circling with a sling load, waiting for the clouds to break was wasting valuable flight time.
Our aircraft was stationed permanently at the Korean TOC. We were there just to do C&C support. They weren’t using us except to do a periodic recon of the mouth of the caves and boredom was settling in. With the weather being so unpredictable, by the time the clouds would clear a little, and a message would be sent to Blue Star ops to launch the resupply aircraft, the drop area would be covered up again. Since we were within eye sight of the mountain, we took any opening in the clouds as an opportunity and used the C&C aircraft to try to get supplies to the soldiers on the mountain side. The G-3 folks were more than willing to give 5
up their C&C aircraft if it meant they could get some resupply accomplished.
It wasn’t long until the Korean soldiers on the ground were getting desperate. After a day or so they may have had plenty of bullets, but their rations and water were running out. It was not unusual, and became hilarious; to find a break in the clouds, head to the spot the radio man was point to on the map while telling us to expect "yellow smoke". But as we got over the mountain and the sound of the helicopter could be heard by all the troops on the mountain side; there would be purple smoke over there, two different yellow smokes, and a couple of reds. The poor suckers on the ground were doing anything to get our attention.
The one I remember best was while making a mad dash to get to our smoke before the clouds came in we passed over a group of soldiers who were popping every color they had. I remember taking a quick glance down to see 20 or so Korean soldiers; wet, miserable, and most of all hungry as hell staring up through the thick jungle folage. As we continued on to our target site, we saw the clouds rolling down the mountain side and cover the intended drop area. We made an abrupt turn just as the aircraft started to enter the clouds and headed back. Thinking quickly, which at the time seemed like a reasonable thing to do, if we couldn’t get the load to one group then getting it to any group is better than returning the load to the supply point. So back we headed to the troops popping the rainbow of color smoke. The clouds were rolling toward us so the drop was simply getting it in the hole and pickle the load. Let the guys on the ground worry about not getting squashed by the falling sling load or water and rations. 6
As soon as the load was dropped, I noticed over my shoulder that the Korean radio man was starting to froth at the mouth as he was screaming into his radio mike. With his face turning red (and that’s a major deal for a Korean to do) and with veins popping out on his neck, it was blatantly obvious that he was letting us know in no uncertain terms that he was not happy with what just happened.
We returned to the supply staging area and received a vicious "universal cut it" sign from the young man as he jumped out and headed to the Korean Major in charge. We shut down and I walked over, figuring I was going to get my first 1st Class Korean military ass chewing. As I walked up to the Major I noticed our radio man now sulking over to the side under a tree. Seems he was rubbing his jaw as if he had just met Joe Frasier. Before I could get my apology out to the Major, he assured me that we had done the right thing and he was appreciative that we were able to at least get some resupply to some of the Korean soldiers. Maybe not the right ones, but at least they were Korean.
Any aircraft approaching the mouth of the cave area would become easy targets. As the C&C a/c we had the opportunity to witness the initial Korean assault up to the mouth of the cave. It consisted of two Korean soldiers and a 2 ft by 4 ft half inch steel plate with a hand-hold welded to the back of it. We watch as these two soldiers, hunkered down behind their makeshift armor would inch their way up the mountain side toward the mouth of the cave. The front man would pick up the steel plate (which probable weighed more than he did) as the guy in back would shove him forward. Six inches seemed to be an average movement forward at any one time and it was a long way to the 7
cave entrance. All the while there were VC bullets bouncing off the front of the steel plate. If Korean Army ever paid hazardous duty pay, those two guys just earned the right to be first in line.
When they finally got within throwing distance of the cave area, the guy in back started chunking hand grenades ahead of them. They kept moving and chunking until the VC surrendered their position at the cave entrance and retreated back into the bowels of the mountain. This allowed the Koreans to control the major entry into the mountain, although there were still numerous bad guys remaining in the immediate area.
The Korean Ops said they were ready for the troop insertion. Blue Star was called to launch the lift ships. With the lift ships airborne someone came up with the less than bright idea that we would take up lead since we "supposedly" knew the area intimately. The aircraft arrived later that evening, troops were quickly loaded, and the flight headed to the cave area. The flight couldn’t have been more than 6 or 8 aircraft.
One thing I was absolutely always impressed with was the Blue Star aircrews. Maybe it was the seriousness of the situation we found ourselves in or the inherent professionalism of our company, but Blue Star combat assaults were often conducted with very little chatter. Everyone knew their job and they did it damn well. A simple "follow me and the Jokers are reporting heavy fire" was sufficient.
We circled around to the south of the mountain. Each aircraft was getting the appropriate spacing necessary for a single ship, tight LZ. The Joker gunships were prepping the LZ area and reported receiving substantial gunfire and the altitude at which they were 8
making their gun runs. As we came around the southeast side of the mountain at an altitude to clear the gunships we found ourselves facing directly into the setting sun. Unable to see below us and not wanting to descend into a B-model, we called a go around, directing the aircraft behind us to drop down below the level of the sun. By now Chalk 2 was into the sun and also called a go around. Chalk 3 was able to get low enough before he came around the mountain to be below the sun and to see the gunships. We continued on around the mountain with Chalk 2 in tow and joined up at the end of the formation.
So the insertion continued with Chalk 3 being the first aircraft into the hole. Suddenly the chatter started on the radios. One aircraft was warning others about a tree he was cutting. Another became a pendulum swinging back and forth as the soldiers exited from the uphill side before the downhill side and was able to somehow get a downed tree stuck between his skid and the aircraft. How he ever got out of that I don’t know. Others were reporting blade strikes and passing back information on what to watch for to the aircraft coming in behind them. Our turn came. We got into the LZ, dropped off our guys and head back to Ninh Hua for fuel. Some aircraft were reporting possible damage and headed over to Nah Trang to check their aircraft out.
As soon as we called Blue Star Ops with inbound for fuel, I was told that the CO wanted to see me immediately upon landing. We refueled and parked the aircraft in the L-shaped revetments. Leaving the aircraft and heading to the Orderly Room I had visions of my short military career coming to a screeching halt. Apparently Major Harris had already been briefed on the damaged aircraft from the insertion and was ready to neuter me 9
for not calling a halt to the lift. By the time I got to his office, he was more red faced than usual, veins were popping out on his neck and froth was forming on the edges of his mouth. He had nothing more on his mind but how was he going to explain a 20% readiness of his company because some dumb ass didn’t call a halt to an insertion.
Immediately he began the ass chewing of my career. It was quite some time before he finally took a deep breath to get his second wind and I jumped at the opportunity and blurted out "I wasn’t the first ship into the LZ". He stopped in mid breath so I quickly related the entire situation with the sun and the gunships. He just froze. Looking like he was somewhere between shock and disbelief. I hurriedly filled in the rest of the story. I kept Putting "heavy emphasis" on the fact that we were the second to last aircraft into the LZ.
As each cloud has a silver lining, each story has a happy ending. It seems that Chalk 3, the first aircraft into the LZ and the one who should have called it off, was driven by one of Major Harris’s "Fair Haired Boys". Suddenly the loss of multiple rotor blades just wasn’t that important and we never heard about it again.
Once the soldiers got inside the caves, they chased the VC out the back exits where the troops encircling the mountain were waiting for them. Returning to standby at the Korean TOC, we were getting minute by minute reports of their progress from the CG’s driver who considered it some strange type of honor to keep the American aircrew informed of the Korean’s exploits. A fully functioning hospital was found inside. Complete electrical and communication systems were throughout the cave system. 10
On one occasion he came out of the TOC with the latest news appearing more excited than usual. "The Korean soldiers captured female VC" he said proudly. This seemed to be particular exciting to him. Within 15 minutes though, he was back. Sadly he said in his broken English. "VC shoot Korean soldier. So, Korean soldier shoot VC woman." He shrugged his shoulders and headed back into the TOC.
The operation was a complete success. The substantial list of "killed and captured" results can be found on the Blue Star Unit History page. The Koreans, learning from the French, knew the VC, if left to their own devices, would be back in the caves as soon as the Koreans left. The caves were too extensive to blow up. So the second best thing was to make them uninhabitable for either man or beast. Crystal CS seemed to be the obvious choice. Pumps with hoppers full of CS crystals were brought to the mouth of the caves and the CS was pumped into them leaving them no longer available for occupancy.
There was report of one crew who had the misfortune to have the pump with the loose hopper lid. You’re right. It came off while in route to the cave, filling the interior of the aircraft with a swirling fog of CS crystals. Reportedly the pilot closed both eyes, lowered collective, and dived to the ground. He was able to opened one eye just enough to see when to pull pitch to get it safely on the ground.
As to what happened the mortars?
They were dumped on the front steps of the office of the Nah Trang District Chief.
Feb 68 – Feb 69
Back to War Story Page
Back to 48th AHC Home Page