Thursday, January 19, 2006

Remembering: FSB Ripcord

We were looking at some pictures and paperwork tonight trying to put together a CD for my cousins about the life of their dad, Lewis Henry. It's interesting what you can remember when you look at pictures of your family from all different periods. I was helping my brother, pointing to photographs and reading names on the back, identifying this or that person:

Oh, that's Babe Howard and Sidney, grandma's cousins, they were in the Army in WWII. Grandma said that Babe was never the same. Drank alot. Shot up the town a few times. The sheriff would bring him back home or call them to pick him up.

Oh my God, that is great grandpa and his brothers running a moonshine still. See, he's missing a finger where a gun blew up in his hand. He always said the revenuers shot it off in a gun fight. (laugh)

Now, that lady with the seeing eye dog is Lynnie May. She was grandpa's mother. She died in 1964 I think. Aunt Lorene was driving and they had an accident down on K-32. I think they all lived in Muncie.

I think that is Dad, Uncle Lewis and Aunt Cynthia around 1963. Dad's about thirteen in that picture. That's the house grandma and grandpa built off of 55th I think.

On and on. It was interesting.

Then we came across Uncle Lewis's service pictures. Some of them were a little messed up with time and water damage. One of the photos was our cousin Max Brewer who was also in Vietnam. Then there was a photo of my Uncle in Thailand on leave with his arm around some Thai girl drinking beer. He's in the yellow shirt I mentioned before where the old man had put a python around his neck. We couldn't find that photo though. We'll have to ask Aunt Jeanie. What was funny was my brother agonizing about whether to put that in. Maybe it would bug Aunt Jeanie? I told him that it was long before he met her and it was part of his story, so why not?

Anyway, as we were looking at some info I noted one of his medals was an Air Medal with V device. I couldn't remember them all the other night when I was writing his story. It had a little tag beneath it that said, "Ripcord". I remember reading that name on the Black Widows' website and vaguely recalled it from a History Channel story so I decided to look it up.

Wow. I mean, "WOW!" You know, he told me stories, but he didn't tell me everything. I was reading the story of FSB Ripcord and I realized why he didn't speak on it. It's the type of thing that movies are made of. It's the kind of thing that may be hard for people to understand or believe if they weren't there, if it wasn't written in history. It's the stuff that heroes are made from.

A few excerpts:

Rescue From FSB Ripcord by Tom Marshall

For the helicopter pilots, the rules were simple. If Americans were in trouble, the pilots would come to their aid no matter what.

Fire Support Base Ripcord, one of a string of firebases along the eastern perimeter of the A Shau Valley, came under heavy enemy fire in the early summer of 1970, while American troops were using the base as a jumping-off point for operations in the valley. Their mission was to block NVA divisions positioned to move on the coastal city of Hue.

Ripcord had been carved out near the top of a 2,800-foot-high mountain. First used by the U.S. Marines in 1967 and 1968, the firebase had again been operated by the 101st Airborne Division in 1969 and closed when monsoons prevented its resupply. It was reopened once more in April 1970. On April 1, B Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry (2/506), 101st Airborne Division was inserted in the firebase.

Soon after the infantrymen arrived, the level of NVA activity increased around the Khe Sahn plain and the A Shau Valley. The intensity of the fighting in the area around Ripcord soon overshadowed ongoing enemy harassment of nearby ARVN Firebases O'Reilly and Barnett.[snip]

On July 20, Captain Chuck Hawkins, commander of A Company, 2/506, which had reinforced the original B Company defenders at the firebase, reported that a tap had been made on a land line between an NVA division headquarters and an artillery regiment on the valley floor below Ripcord. The Americans had learned that surrounding the firebase were four NVA regiments with up to 12, 000 men. Their immediate objective was the destruction of Ripcord.

On hearing that new and disturbing intelligence, Maj. Gen. Sidney Berry, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, took action. Early on the morning of July 21, Berry called Colonel Harrison and told him, "We're closing Ripcord." [snip]

At first light on July 23, 14 Chinooks-each large enough to carry more than 30 men per trip-headed toward Ripcord to begin lifting out the B Company 2/506 troops. Everything went smoothly until 7:40 a.m., when anti-aircraft fire again knocked out a Chinook. the chopper crashed in flames on the firebase's large lower landing pad, preventing the other Chinooks from lifting out the rest of the men, artillery and heavy equipment. The infantrymen would have to be evacuated by Bell UH-1 Hueys, which could carry only six men at a time. All available Hueys in the 101st Airborne were detailed to head for the beleaguered firebase. They would dart in and out one at a time, dodging continuous anti-aircraft and artillery fire.

Looking at the information from my uncle's things, I realized that he was with the Black Widows in '70-71 which by then had been redesignated from the 188th Assault Helicopter Company to the 101st Aviation Battalion (AHB) Charlie Co. A patch he had said "CE 562" on the body of a Black Widow spider. You can see the years he was in on the roster and, if you read the history of the Black Widows you can see that they were redesignated as 101st AHB in 1968. They were at LZ Sally, but were eventually moved to Phu Bai which is on my uncle's paperwork.

And then there was this "calling card":

Reading that, I realized where he'd been exposed to Agent Orange. It says, "People Sniffing & Defoliating" which of course is reference to spraying Agent Orange. I had been reading information about the actual rate of exposure and was trying to figure out why a guy in a helicopter would be exposed to Agent Orange when it would be sprayed on the ground. That's when I realized that it was the helicopters doing the spraying.

Returning to our story:

The Hueys were refueled and assembled for one of the largest hot extractions of U.S. forces in South Vietnam. Sixty Hueys from the companies of the 158th Aviation Battalion and the "Redskins" from Camp Evans and 60 Hueys from the 101st Aviation Battalion and the "Hawks" at Camp Eagle - both groups flying Bell AH-1G Cobra gunships-plus the 4/77 "Griffins" in rocket-equipped gunships, joined the lift birds and the other Cobras from Camp Eagle in the mission to subdue the NVA around Ripcord.

Aboard one of the Hueys was Captain Randy House, platoon leader from C Company, 158th Aviation Battalion, who was serving as leader of the extraction flight-call sign Phoenix-that day. Approaching the area, he could clearly see that it was time to get on with the mission, but as yet his flight had had no contact with the command-and-control ship flying high above. It turned out that the NVA and some of their Communist Chinese advisers had managed to deny the Americans use of the radio frequencies.[snip]

House observed that the firebase's upper landing pad, located near it 155mm howitzers, was taking much less mortar fire than the lower pad, which was under continuous shelling-and at any rate was partially blocked by the burning Chinook wreckage. House made contact with a pathfinder (a combat controller) at Ripcord and told him he was ready to continue the extraction. House ordered the 101st Airborne Division's Hueys to approach the firebase along a riverbed, turn above a waterfall on the mountain and continue to Ripcord. Others from the the 158th and 101st Aviation battalions would follow.

House directed the choppers to the available landing areas. As the extraction continued, the pathfinders instructed some birds to land on different pads, but the NVA were clearly listening in on their communications. If a Huey was directed to a particular pad, mortars were fired on that landing area. Undaunted, the pathfinders working the extraction from Ripcord developed their own strategy to foil the enemy's efforts. When they heard the mortar shells fires, the pathfinders would divert each Huey to another pad at the last second. Five soldiers would scramble aboard and the Hueys would lift off, just before the next round of mortars arrived.

One by one, the Hueys touched down. Some of the landing pads were big enough for only one Huey to land at a time, pick up five or six passengers and depart-all under .51-caliber (12.7mm) anti-aircraft fire, joined by fire from hundreds of AK-47s. One of the upper pads was not targeted as often, receiving only intermittent 88mm mortar and 75mm recoilless rifle fire.[snip]

Captain House, still circling above Ripcord, continued the extraction with the other lift companies. They were circling in sight of Ripcord, keeping an eye on the deadly landing zones marked by mortar explosions. House continued to fill the position of command and control. He had just seen his Hueys getting shot to hell while getting the job done. Painfully aware that there were troops still waiting for extraction on the firebase, House understood his importance in the role of impromptu air mission commander. He figured the sooner they finished, the better.

House called to the leader of the Ghostrider flight, "Rider one-six, Phoenix one-six." Ghostrider one-six responded, "Go!"

"This is Phoenix Lead. The other briefers are not up," said House. "Its pretty strong (anti-aircraft fire) west of Ripcord. I hate to be the one to keep this damn thing going, but give me your poz (position)."

"Between Phon Dien, blueline by Jack (southwest of Camp Evans combat base over the river)" came the reply. House then gave the pilots instructions on the best approach direction. Ghostrider Lead briefed the other birds in his flight, but he knew all of the pilots in the area could see the continuous bombardment underway. Ghostrider Lead continued, "I'm not gonna order you into that stuff, but if you think you can get onto the pad, do it!"

The Hueys would come as long as there were Americans on the ground. The pilots and crews saw what they would have to go through and made their approaches one by one. The airwaves became clogged with incessant reports: "Pretty white stuff on top," called a Ghostrider as he approached the upper LZ in a flurry of mortar shells.

"It's CS," another pilot calmly remarked-tear gas.

Another asked, "Are we using CS?"

"No," responded the first pilot. "They are."

Not only would the Huey pilots fly through walls of .51 caliber anti-aircraft tracers to land amid exploding clouds of tear gas, which might temporarily blind them.[snip]

Another Ghostrider, also touching down at Ripcord, called, "Go in top pad, one more hit just right beside me!"

A pathfinder at Ripcord asked, "Did a slic (UH-1D) just get shot down?"

Commanchero one-one, from A Company, 101st Aviation Battalion, replied, "No, a mortar hit him sitting on the ground."

Ghostrider Chalk-Seven broke in with: "Taking small arms fire 100 meters out. They're leading it onto the pad."

Ghostrider Lead called, "Abort, Chalk-Seven!"

Chalk-Seven responded: "No, I've aborted three times already, I'll just continue in!"

Ghostrider Lead said: "I'll leave it up to you. Go in if you can!"

Another pilot called out, "POL (the fuel dump) just went up-took a mortar, right beside me."

The lift companies - Ghostriders, Lancers, Comancheros, Black Widows and Kingsmen-continued the procession. Many of the choppers were taking hits. The smoke, the streams of green and gold enemy tracers, the jets swooping low, laying napalm while Cobra gunships attacked lines of enemy troops-all of it nearly overwhelmed the senses of the chopper crews.

But the Hueys kept coming. When one chopper was shot down, another landed to retrieve its crew. By noon, only 18 fighting men remained at Ripcord from an original force of nearly 400. Driven from their secure positions by exploding 155mm ammunition that had been ignited by the fires, those remaining soldiers ran to one end of the firebase and attempted to form a security perimeter. They could see NVA swarming up the mountainside toward them like ants, breaching the lower perimeter wires less than 100 yards away.

Most of the GIs were carrying M-60 machine guns, firing from the hip as they moved from one position to another. They simply wanted to get off that Godforsaken mountain alive. Private first class Daniel Biggs watched as a Huey approached the pad and landed in the exact spot where two mortar shells had hit seconds earlier. Biggs later told a Stars and Stripes correspondent, "He came right in, didn't turn away or nothin'."[snip]

A short while alter, the last Huey to lift off from the firebase sustained major damage and heavy casualties to its passengers. The last men off the mountain were members of B Company, 2/506. They had also been the first ones to arrive in April. The troop withdrawals from the valley floor below would not end for another two hours.[snip]

Operations in the area around Firebase Ripcord had proved to be a costly undertaking. Between April 1 and July 31, 1970, 135 UH-1H Hueys were seriously damaged and rendered unflyable. They vast majority of the division pilots and crew members survived despite combat damage to their aircraft. Ten Cobras and three Hughes OH-6a Loaches also sustained serious hits. Only two of the six Huey lift companies involved in operations in that area did not lose a crew killed in action. All the pilots who participated in the evacuation earned Distinguished Flying Crosses. The crew chiefs and door gunners received Air Medals with a "V" for valor.

Helicopters, including gunships and lift ships, were crucial to the evacuation of Ripcord. The withdrawal could not have succeeded without the courage and daring of Huey pilots and crewmen who repeatedly braved direct mortar fire, recoilless rifle fire and walls of neon-green .51-caliber anti-aircraft tracers to save the lives of their countrymen.

Read the rest here. There is a lot more to the story of Ripcord.

Here's a newspaper clipping about the retreat and rescue:

Somethings never change.

Sometimes, that's good. Our current men and women continue on the proud tradition:

On December 19, 1989 under permanent orders 179-1, the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment was redesignated as the 9th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment.

The “Black Widows” of Alpha Company, 9th Battalion (Eagle Strike), 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), returned home in February 2004, after a one year tour of duty as proud combat veterans from the unforgiving deserts of Iraq during Operation “Iraqi Freedom.” Black Widow black hawk helicopters were the first to cross the Iraqi border in March 2003, when the war began. Their motto: MATE AND KILL.

After their return to Fort Campbell Alpha Company was re-flagged as Alpha Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. Commander, Captain Jason Blevins, chose to continue the Black Widow legacy by choosing “SPIDERS” as their new logo and call sign. The legacy of the 188th Assault Helicopter’s gun platoon will live on with A/4/3. The new A/4/3 pocket patch will include reference to the establishment of the 188th Assault Helicopter Company in 1966.

And this update seems to indicate that they returned for a second tour of duty:

2. Alpha Company flew one Air Assault mission with Task Force 2-7 CAV of the 1 st Cavalry Division on 16 February [2005]. The ground tactical plan included IED sweeps along MSR routes west of Taji. The Task Force discovered IEDs along MSR routes, validating the success of the Air Assault. [snip]

3. Alpha Company also planned and briefed a pending Air Assault into Zone 66 with Task Force 3-325 Airborne Infantry (82 nd Airborne Division). The Air Assault was planned in order to destroy counter insurgents firing rockets and mortars into Zone One, targeting the newly formed Iraqi National Assembly.

Just another fascinating piece of history.


FbL said...

Wow. Thanks so much for drawing attention to that amazing story of courage and heroism.

Jerry said...

Jerry here...was on Ripcord about June 13,1970 with Charlie Company 1/506th pulling perimeter security.we were lucky enough to be off of Ripcord when the heavy stuff started.That was quite a place!!

Anonymous said...

Hello Comrades, Came across the website on Ripcord. I remember that base well. I was stationed at Camp Eagle, A/101 Avn. Combat Air Assault., "Comanchero's", Crewchief on a UH-1H, RVN: 3/70-4/71 for my first tour. Most of our insertions and extractions were in the Highlands for all that served in the I-Core. Also we missioned with Special Operations Group out of Quang Tri and Khesahn. Ripcord was a regular for us. As was FSB Tomahawk and Lamson 719 and many others. The "Comacheros" were reactivated in Iraq, "Blackhawks". Check our Website: A/ or just Google: "The Comancheros in Vietnam". God Bless All
Frederick Ellis
101st Airborne Division

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