Sunday, May 29, 2011

Vietnam -- Reflections: My Own After Action Report For The 4th Battalion, 77th Aerial Field Artillery

Between March of 1968 and to the conclusion of the unit's participation in Vietnam, the 4th Battalion, 77th Aerial Field Artillery(AFA) flew an unconventional artillery piece known as an AH-1G Cobra straight into some rather heated and hostile gun battles.

While the mission of the unit was firm -- supply ground forces with close combat artillery support -- in many stations, the artillery aviation officer was able to assess the situation and determine exactly what was needed to complete the mission accurately, effectively and will minimal loses.

Perhaps a mirror reflection of the young men serving with the unit, the 4th Battalion, 77th Aerial Field Artillery(AFA) suffered identity issues. While the unit saw no reason to have a staff for press coverage, that mistake allowed the press to think --wrongfully -- that all Cobras were gunships and there was no distinction between the purpose and mission deployment.

In retrospect, had the 4th Battalion, 77th Aerial Field Artillery(AFA) assigned one officer to be in charge of awards and decorations and one officer assigned to public affairs at battalion level and a similar dedication at Battery level, the unit would have gained higher levels of distinction and more accurate press coverage.

Furthermore, factual and accurate information verses politically charged and conventional brown shoe attitudes, not only tainted individual heroism, in many cases, it inflicted wounds onto the very essence of bravery.

One officer going through the Air Assault School made it plan and simple: "There's no room for a 10 mile per hour mind in a 100 mile per hour division."

We had just too many whose thoughts flowed like refrigerated honey.

Incidents such as Frederick Cappo's actions to save the lives of two of his fellow officers while under fire didn't earn him the Medal of Honor. 

Instead, he got a silver star. Craig Geis was not awarded anything for trying to save Cobras from a burning hanger. Jeffery Johns was never given any kind of award to share with the wives of two dead pilots who lost their lives over Fire base Nancy on May 4th during a practice red alert.

Captain Winfrey, who lost his life on May 4th, flew with a burnt hand and left behind a 9 month old daughter. There is no excuse for the lack of recognition.

These were the officers who flew their Cobras into the armpits of hell. 

You can fairly well imagine that there was at least one or two acts of bravery or going beyond the call of duty that enlisted soldiers did that never saw the words of valor attached to them.      

In short, the AFA was its own worst enemy.

Both logistical issues and helicopter limitations restricted affected reactions to a fire mission or a direct conflict with enemy soldiers.

The AH-1G Cobra simply put was under powered and less agile than what was needed to perform the missions. The kind of configuration demanded by the Aerial Field Artillery was called "Heavy Hog" for a very good reason.  Fuel had to be compromised just to get the Cobra off the ground.

So while it appeared the Cobra provided a means by which 72 rockets could be carried, stress on the rotor blades in the form of the Teflon sleeves allowing the blades to pitch smoothly proved otherwise.

Parts and aircraft mechanics proved to be another vulnerable issue. In both cases you either had too many or not enough of the same kind to assure the unit was at 100% combat ready status every day.

In some rare cases, parts were used a bargaining chips.  Instead of flowing through the supply lines as they should, some parts were horded or worse, went into private inventories.

Logistical paperwork also impeded on the performance of the unit. Maintenance support forms had to be issued for untimely maintenance requests and standard maintenance cycles were strictly enforced.

While conventional 105mm and 155mm howitzers had maintenance schedules, it didn't have a thousand moving parts.  Short of being in a C-130, Howitzers don't fly and fire off rounds at the same time.

If the Battalion had Apache helicopters during the Vietnam conflict, indeed, if the technology we have today was available then used there, hands down, we would have sent the NVA to China.

But we didn't and because of this, because the Cobra was not qualified to fly in all weather conditions, units such as the 4th Battalion, 77th Aerial Field Artillery were restricted to line of sight engagements.

Without night vision goggles, flair ships were needed to illuminate the battle below; compromising ground force's positions.

Despite these problems and limitations, the 4th Battalion, 77th Aerial Field Artillery(AFA)  or Aerial Rocket Artillery (ARA), performed well, a single engagement, for example netted 128 NVA KIAs without a single loss of a helicopter or loss of an American life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are so very right. Many units including Assault Helicopter Companies experenced the same right hand not knowing what the left hand was uo to. The worse of the worse was the 23rd Americal Division. When support was needed it took so long foe HQ to put it together is was all over. The Americal was a cluster f**k all the time.