Courtesy Tony Terrana & Ron Turner

67-17187 ---  Smokey’s First Day

Upon our arrival at Dong Ha in the early evening of March 16 1971, we parked 68-16221 over by the maintenance area.  The no. 3 hanger bearing mount on the tail rotor drive shaft was shot up and a few other holes in the tail boom needed fixing.  I also had a round hit my M60 (that’s a whole ‘nother story).  After I was done with 221, I walked over to maintenance to turn in my dash 13 and noticed a slick with a big black tank in the cargo bay laying on the floor in front of the transmission, running the width of the ship.  The ship, a converted D model No. 67-17187, was a little rough around the edges. A maintenance officer was standing there so I asked him what was up with this bird.  After a few minutes I had a good understanding of what a smoke ship was supposed to do, and that it was considered to be a loser.  The ship was assigned to the 2nd flight and it would be going up tomorrow.  I asked him why a smoke ship mission is such a loser.  He said, “low leveling around and around an LZ without gun cover just doesn’t work.  You might get away with it the first time you try it out in the AO, but after that, you’re going down.”

Now I had a real dilemma on my hands.  Later on that night I would have to assign a crew to the loser but who could I saddle this with?  I decided it would have to be me. (Later on that night, to their great credit, almost every crew chief and gunner in 2nd Flt volunteered for this mission.)  I decided that if I was going to crew this ship, I had a lot to get done in a real short time.  First on the list would be the AC.  Being blessed with the best H model pilot that I ever had the pleasure to fly with (and I flew with a lot of pilots), my AC on 221, Mr. Turner, was the pilot I wanted.   I tracked Mr. Turner down and told him I was going to crew the smoke ship and asked him if he would fly it.  To my great relief, he agreed.  I really have no idea how Lt. Smith ended up in the right seat.  My next stop was Maj. Bunting.  The good major gave me permission to use our company’s two aircraft 50. cal. machine guns instead of the standard M60s as door guns.  Then I asked if I could put two more gunners in jump seats behind the pilots with free ‘60s’.  For as long as I live, I will never forget Major Bunting’s response.  He looked me square in the eye and said, “I can’t afford to lose six good men all at once.  Four will be bad enough.”  Well that tended to put the whole thing into perspective.  Lose one ship but maybe the rest of the flight gets out OK.  In looking back, that may have seemed to be a desperate measure, but in light of our losses up to this point during Lam Son 719, it was reasonable.  I didn’t have a problem with this.  After all, the guys who flew our gun ships were making sacrifices like this every day.  Next came the selection of a door gunner.

We had a guy named Barry Redington who just came into 2nd flight from the motor pool.  In retrospect, this was a pretty shitty thing to do to a guy with zero flight experience, but if we weren’t coming back anyway.......maybe better to lose three experienced people instead of four.  At this point let me take a short aside to say that Barry turned out to be one of the best gunners I ever had the privilege to train.  He was totally fearless, worked well under great pressure, winning a Silver Star and a man that I will always count as a true friend.  Not too bad, as I would later find out, when you are only sixteen years old.  Barry and I worked into the wee hours of the night with a guy from armament mounting the 50s and getting the ship ready to fly.  We managed a few hours of sleep before preflight.

In the morning (17 Mar.), we found the ni-cad battery would not start the ship. Maintenance replaced the battery and started the ship with an APU.  The rest of the flight was already long gone.  We left Dong Ha and headed toward the ocean, looking for a place where Barry and I could learn how to operate the 50s.  When a suitable spot was located I lowered the muzzle and pulled --more like pushed-- the trigger and then all hell broke loose.  A first aid kit launched itself off the wall.  Mr. Turner’s map light came loose, hit him on the helmet and both ashtrays fell out.  Every gauge was totally unreadable......Neat!  I found the 950 RPM rate of fire on that 50 very impressive.  The bad news was that the right gun would not fire at all.  We decided to head on up to PZ kilo and try to get the gun repaired there.

After our arrival at Kilo, I tried in vain to fix that gun.  We even had a few guys from a passing armor outfit take a look at the 50 but to no avail.. That gun just wouldn’t chamber a round.  So there we sat, with a broken right door gun waiting for a mission.  As the day wore on I started to think that maybe we wouldn’t catch a mission.  That would give me a whole day to get that gun fixed and tend to many small items on 187.  But, around 1600 we were told to crank for a smoke mission.  I don’t know how Mr. Turner felt or what Lt. Smith was thinking or if Barry even knew what was going on, but I was about scared shitless.  I gave Barry my M79 to compliment his M16 and away we went.

The tactical details of our smoke mission are as follows:  We were to wall off with smoke, three sides of the ARVN PZ for this extraction.  The slicks were to go in low, do a 180 and come out high.  It would be necessary for us to climb over both the inbound and outbound traffic to continue our run.  We came in low and fast on the north side of the PZ heading west.  The smoke system worked great!  From my vantage point I saw a huge, thick, high wall of white smoke coming from the hot end of 187.  Neat!!  We took some fire but that .50 was really taking care of business. Then I noticed something strange.  Tracers were coming down instead of going up.  I leaned forward in the well and looked up only to see the smiling face of Mike Swank looking down at me while he prepped all around our main rotor blade with his free 60.  Apparently our Joker gun ships extended their traffic pattern to give us some much needed and appreciated help.  (Thanks, guys!!).  We made our left hand turn and headed south for a ways and then back east.  Now this was the part I feared the most, climbing over the traffic.  A rising target is easy to hit.  As we climbed up, a 12.7 started to bark at us.  I fired a burst at the muzzle flash and the gun stopped firing at us.  I don’t know if I hit him or just scared him but I sure did suppress him.  After getting hammered in Laos for the last six weeks, I was enjoying the hell out of shooting big bullets down faster than they were coming up, for a change.  We made, I believe, three passes around that PZ with about the same things happening until all the slicks were out of there.

The big payoff was that nobody got shot down, nobody got hurt, everybody made it out of there clean!  I will always look upon this mission as a great tactical success for the 48th A.H.C.  Later that day, I took fire from a .51 cal and got three secondary explosions out of that gun position with just a short burst.  That started my love affair with that 50.  You gotta like a gun that fires huge slugs that fast that is thick enough to hide behind.  Well, I used to be thin enough to hide behind it anyway.  So goes the story of the 187’s first mission.  When I get time, I’ll write about day two, 18 Mar., 187’s last smoke mission of Lam Son 719.

By Anthony (Tony) Terrana 2nd Flt. Plt. 48th A.H.C.    Feb. 70 - Aug. 71

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Some additional comments by Ron Turner

221 was a great aircraft but I loved 187.  And other than being bored silly waiting for a mission, I was like you .... scared shitless.  Let's see, I think the manual said something like "for best smoke lay down, fly at 60 knots indicated".  Ya, right.

Flying that mission in a pretty much untested/unproved aircarft had me worried, based on the traffic pattern we had to fly because of the pattern of the incoming / outgoing slicks.  But no time like the present.  When we got the word. "OK Smoke, start your run", I think my balls retracted into my body as I nosed it over and headed for the tree tops.   60 kts for best....Shit, no way.  "This is Smokey 82, smoke inbound, send 'em in".  You could hear and feel the whir of the pumps shooting the oil mist into the exhaust.  Tony and I were exposed to the tree line but at least his gun was working. "Takin fire, takin fire."  Have you ever heard & felt a .50 cal machine gun shake your aircraft?  The sound of Tony's 50 slammin' away was reassuring.  As we completed the horse shoe pattern I shut the smoker off and started to max climb over the incoming flight.  Geez, I must be insane.  But 187 had more that enough power to get us up, turn around and do it again.  We made 3 or 4 runs trailing smoke until the PZ was clear.

By Ron Turner (aka Thumper; aka Smokey 82)
281st  (7/70 - 12/70)
48th   (12/70 - 7/71)

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