Air Support in Vietnam

Fire support in Vietnam for the 1st Battalion 6th Infantry from the United States Air Force and Marines
came in several forms:  (1) close air support (CAS) for troops on the ground in contact with the enemy;
(2) pre-planned air strikes; (3) "Daisy Cutter" blasts to create small landing zones for helicopters; and
(4) so-called "beacon drops" through cloud cover when troops were not nearby.  Although the famous
B-52 "Arc Light" strikes could be heard in the distance from the 1st Bn 6th Inf tactical area of operations,
those earth-shaking missions were targeted at enemy concentrations many miles away to the west.

(1) Close Air Support (CAS) also known as Tac Air.  Air support was available for many years in
the Quang Ngai and Quang Nam provinces of South Vietnam from the air base at Chu Lai.  Marine
Air Groups 12 and 13 of the 1st Marine Air Wing provided support.  For additional details, refer to
this link.

This US Marine A-4E Skyhawk aircraft is from VMA-223, the "Bulldogs," who were at Chu Lai
from August to December 1968.  The tail letters "WP" indicate the Bulldog's squadron.

US Marine A4-E aircraft at Chu Lai.  Two photos by Dave Bliss (C/1-6 Inf 1967-68).  In January
1968, the A-4 Skyhawk Squadrons at Chu Lai included VMA 121 VK, VMA 211 CF, VMA
224 WK and the VMA 311 WL "Tomcats." An  A-6 Squadron, VMA(AW) 533 ED also
was located at Chu Lai.

In March 1970, the "Silver Eagles" of Marine Fighter Attack Sq. (VMFA) 115, accumulated 10,000
accident-free flight hours in more than 45 months of combat operations in Vietnam flying the F4B
Phamtom.  In those same 45 months, they had flown overe 8,100 combat sorties delivering 15,780
tons of ordnance on enemy targets.

In 1968 and later, soldiers from the 1st Bn 6th Inf also received close air support from USAF aircraft.
The  Douglas A-1 "Skyraider" supported operations near LZ Center in May 1968 as did the AC-47
"Spooky" gunship.  Later in the war, the USAF also had strike aircraft (sometimes F-4) on station
that would come to the aid of units in contact.  Units could contact these aircraft on 243.0 MC
(USH-FM), an emergency "May Day" frequency, before switching to another frequency to control
the strike.  These missions were controlled by Forward Air Controllers (FACs) who usually flew the
distinctive pusher-puller-prop "Skymaster" aircraft shown below that were made by Cessna.  Photo
provided by Dave Bliss (C/1-6 Inf  1967-68)

The O-2A was equipped with wing pylons to carry rockets, flares, and other light ordnance used for
identifying and marking enemy targets with smoke rockets.  It also coordinated air strikes and reported
target damage.  For additional information about this aircraft, use this link.  For additional information
about the USAF role in Vietnam, consult this link.

An example of a tactical air request format from 1970 is contained in the Regulars Rules p. 85.

"1.  Contact                                                       -  Blue Bird this is Blueleg

2.  Priority of Mission                                     -  Emergency, priority, or routine

3.  Description of target                                   -  Enemy mortar position-

4.  Location of target                                        -  Grid 1234565 north slope

5.  Aircraft maneuver                                        -  Run in south, pull out left

6.  Location of friendlies                                   -  Friendlies east of river, will mark with smoke

7.  Marking of target                                         -  Will mark with WP round

8.  Degree of observation                                 -  Target in defilade, can see flashes"
 
Photos of an air strike several KM from the positions of D/1-6 Inf in 1970.  Lynn Baker took this 8 mm footage of the strike,
recently converted to VHS and still photos..  The  telephoto lens of the movie camera makes the bombs appear closer than
they were.  Note the Vietnamese standing in the field who appear relatively unconcerned by the air strike in the distance.

During one air strike in June 1970 in support of a B Co. 1st Bn 6th Inf "Eagle Flight" (a series of combat
assaults by helicopter into suspected enemy locations), Dennis Lynn recalled that the "aircraft were so
low that you could see the pilot's face as the high drag bombs dropped toward the target."  On that
mission the unit had encountered a Viet Cong force of twenty or more who chose to stand and fight
in a ville rather than fleeing from the mobile US forces.  Shrapnel from the bombs splattered the trees
over the heads of the soldiers in B Co. as they cowered behind a 12" tall  rice paddy dike as the
enemy fire kept them pinned down in the paddies adjacent to the village.   Helicopter gun ships were
unable to dislodge the enemy.  At least three Viet Cong were killed by the air strikes.  One particular
enemy soldier, who was thought at the time to be ethnic Chinese, was described by Dennis as the "six
feet tall with big feet; the biggest enemy soldier they had ever seen."

The courage of the jet pilots was extraordinary.  On one occasion in 1971, an early evening CAS strike
could be seen just to the northwest of LZ Dottie.  As the USAF pilots made their run in to the target,
tracers from multiple .51 cal emplacements and numerous smaller tracers converged on the attack
aircraft.  They never wavered on the approach, and their voices over the radio remained calm in spite
of the terrific anti-aircraft fire.  After several bomb runs, the tracers stopped.

In today's era of smart bombs and laser guided bombs, it is easy to forget that gravity bombs were not
always so accurate.  In 1971, soldiers from C Co., 1st Bn 6th Inf, had one USAF pilot apologize to them
over the radio for dropping a 500lb bomb BEHIND them rather than to their front on the enemy.
Needless to say, they preferred artillery and armed helicopter fire support thereafter.

(2)  Pre planned air strikes.  These were coordinated ahead of time and usually struck suspected
enemy locations.  For example, at 1800 hours on 14 Sep 70, a pre planned air strike targeted the area
of BS 695 917 in the area near Hill 43 in support of B Co. 1st Bn 6th Inf.  This photo from Ray
Tyndall is believed to be of that particular air strike.

(3) "Daisy Cutter"  When the tactical area of operations for the 1st Bn 6th Inf expanded westward
in 1971, small rice paddies or plots of land cleared for farming were not always available for use as
LZs.  This created a need for blasting out LZs in the vegetation.  Sometimes, a concentrated artillery
strike on an exposed ridge line was sufficient to blast away the vegetation so helicopters could land.
Other times, however, the trees were so large that drastic measures were necessary.

For a "Daisy Cutter" mission, a C-130 aircraft would fly about 2,000 feet over the proposed LZ.
A drogue parachute would pull a 10,000 lb. bomb out the back of the cargo door (left photo),
and the bomb would rapidly descend toward the target while the cargo plane raced away. The
impact (right photo) was awesome, as a probe on the nose of the bomb caused it to explode just
above ground level -- blasting away everything from the point of impact without creating a crater.

The resulting LZ pictured below was just large enough, depending upon the size of the trees in the
jungle, for one or two helicopters to land.  Sometimes two Daisy Cutter missions would strike the
same area, creating a larger LZ with several impact areas side by side.


Photos from National Archive footage of Daisy Cutter mission (16 mm film to video to still photo).

(4)  Beacon drops.  These were pre planned air strikes that were delivered during darkness or periods
of reduced visibility.  By coordinating the location of radio beacons, the strike aircraft were able to
hit targets through heavy clouds.  Obviously such strikes could only be used in areas where no friendly
forces were located.

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