War Stories

POP Smoke

During my tour of duty in Vietnam my company had the opportunity to be on a lot of insertions into enemy held territory. These insertions had to be timed and coordinated in order to be successful and successful we were. The completion of our mission while being inserted into Indian Territory had some teething problems at first, but these problems were overcome by practice, and lessons learned.

Combat comes with a high learning curve. This curve, complete with the fog of war can and does cause causalities. My company came face to face with this learning curve while on eagle flights. Eagle flights are heliborne assaults into suspected enemy enclaves. If no enemy is found at a location, you chopper out to another landing zone and continue the search. Search and destroy was the name of the game and as players we were up to our necks in this endeavor.

My company was selected for a day of eagle flights in the D zone AO. There had been some sightings of NVA-VC in the vicinity of an old firebase that was once occupied by the 1st ID. The companyís job was to go a check out what had been reported and to make contact if possible.

Flying over D zone was at times like looking at the face of the moon. This look was due to all of the bombs and artillery impacting on mother earth and causing craters. The flight to our destination took about 10 minutes. The base came into view and the word to pop yellow smoke came over the radio. Smoke was popped and our flight commander spotted the yellow plum. The crew chief gave us the signal to prepare for a landing at the now smoking LZ.

As we started down I checked my equipment to ensure everything is a go when the chopper landed. The chopper skids touched, and out like a flash I went running to the nearest cover. I knelt down by an old destroyed bunker and scanned my lane of fire, which was looking out towards the wood line. Once my scan was completed, I looked to my rear and saw a sight that made my heart start to pound. Our chopper was the only one to dislodge troops on the old base.

My platoon sergeant came running over to my position and yelled, fall back to the LZ for pickup quickly because we had landed at the wrong spot. I looked at the SSgt in disbelief as I started back to secure our landing zone for the pickup.

I could see the chopper coming in on its approach and all I could think of was how did I get myself into this situation. The helo came to a hover and before the skids could hit the ground my squad was running and getting on board the AC.

Pop was the sound that came from somewhere out side the firebase perimeter. A sniper was firing upon us, we had flow into a trap and the enemy was to have us pay for our mistake.

The now loaded helicopter began its assent and the deserted firebase started to fade from view. I wiped my brow and said to myself that was close and then the word came, one of our men had been hit in the back as he was boarding the bird. It was at this time I realized that another chopper had also landed on the wrong LZ, and the pops I heard was directed at that chopper

Once at the proper LZ I was told that the trooper that was hit died on the way to the hospital. It was a sad day for our platoon on having a man killed because of a little mistake.

Later I learned that the enemy was listening to our radio frequency and when the request to pop yellow smoke came thatís what they did. Our unit and the chopper unit learned a lesson that was to play a big part of our success on later missions. When the request to pop smoke is made the ground team will throw out a smoke grenade and then wait for a reply from the aircraft to identify color of smoke and then get a conformation of color seen. Once conformation has been completed the AC will descend to the designated position.

A lot of lessons had to be learned by my unit, as we made the transition from airborne to airmobile. It took time and sacrifice before we learned our lessons well, but learned we did. My unit earned five unit citations for actions against the enemy while in RVN 1967-1968 for lessons learned and a job well done. The story continues AIRBORNE

William R. Hayes.