Story from the book SOG – The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam
by John L. Plaster.
The Green Hornets, as in Stockdale’s case were the prime reason a lot of SOG men came out of Cambodia alive. “They had a great esprit and really did some great jobs,: said Colonel Jack Singlaub, the Chief SOG who arranged to have the 20th Special Operations Squadron reassigned from base security duties to SOG.
The 20th SOS was SOG’s only US helicopter unit whose crews lived with the SOG men they supported. Although officially based at Cam Rahn Bay, the Green Hornet birds and crews rotated every ten days to the CCS camp at ban Me Thout, which did a lot for developing rapport. There probably was not another unit in Vietnam whose helicopter crews became personal friends of the men they inserted and extracted.
The 20th SOS flew the F-model Huey, which a 20th SOS pilot said, “Wasn’t made for combat, it was made for hauling toilet paper and military policemen to missile silos in North Dakota.” Though the F-model’s turbine was fragile and a maintenance nightmare, it also generated considerably more power than Army Hueys, which meant it more quickly escaped hot LZs and carried more people, features well suited to recon operations.
And unlike Army Hueys, which typically were piloted by nineteen- and twenty year olds, these Air Force Hueys were flown by career majors and lieutenant colonels in their thirties and forties, many on final assignment before retirement.
Half of the Green Hornet Hueys were configured as gunships with rocket pods and unique hand-controlled mini-guns; the latter proved extremely effective. “Best damned gun system over there,” CCS recon man Ben Lyons thought, because pilots could focus on flying their aircraft while the two gunners turned their six thousand per minute guns to meet the target: They fired during the approach, while passing the target and even pivoted the guns to shoot backwards after passing. When a Cobra gunship’s minigun jammed, the Cobra went home for repairs. If a Green Hornet minigun jammed, the gunner put on an asbestos glove, spun the barrels to clear it, then resumed firing, all in less than ten seconds.
The Green Hornet gunships pioneered their own tactics too, especially firing techniques to exploit their hand-held miniguns – like “three-sixties”: Hovering above a team, the pilot would spin his bird in a 360-degree pedal turn with both miniguns shooting straight down to form a circular wall of fire. “I don’t give a damn who you are, you’re not getting through that,” a former recon man said.
One young Green Hornet troopship pilot, Lieutenant Jim Fleming, had a tough time adapting to the organization with its high esprit and firmly established pecking order. A swaggering lot, the gunship pilots thought themselves the chosen few. Knaves flew troopships, these knights of the gunships reminded him. It was the swashbuckling gunships that came spewing lead and rockets to save the day, then the second-class troopships, like airborne taxis, went in to pick up the team – at least that is what the gunship crews liked to say.
Worse yet, the twenty-five year-old Fleming was a lowly lieutenant in a world of thirty-five year old majors and lieutenant colonels. Though elevated to aircraft commander (AC) after five months of combat flying, he may as well have been driving a dump truck, according to the gunship pilots. The rivalry irked the proud and skillful junior officer though he said little about it. He was just trying to do the best job he could.
Any SOG team that A Green Hornet pilot inserted was “his.” That is if he put them in, he pulled them out, with four Green Hornet troopships dividing the teams among themselves. Even if a particular Green Hornet commander and his bird were scheduled to rotate back to Cam Rahn Bay, they’d not depart before extracting “his” team.
It was only Fleming’s second day as an AC that he was tested in a life-and-death contest. Flying with a new co-pilot, Major Paul McClellan, Fleming inserted RT Chisel in Cambodian Target Tango-51; there was no ground fire, so the recon men began moving quietly toward a wide river they were to surveil for enemy boat traffic.
The Green Hornets returned to Duc Co, the small Special Forces border camp they’d launched from, refueled, ate lunch; then in mid afternoon another team climbed aboard and they flew far south to slip them into another part of Cambodia.
By now RT Chisel had set up overlooking the river, lying in thick brush along a bend. Led by Staff Sergeant Ancill “Sonny” Franks, who’d run recon almost a year, RT Chisel included his One-One (Second in Command), Sergeant Charles Hughes, and three Montagnards. They were accompanied by Green Beret Captain Randolph Harrison, the new CCS Recon Company commander, there to acquaint himself with what his men did.
While the rest of the team improved camouflage, Sergeant Hughes erected a wire radio antenna to extend their range. It was barely set up when an NVA force hit RT Chisel.
Hughes radioed for help but there was no response. The inherent danger of a river-watch mission, especially on a wide stream such as this, is that the position is untenable if detected. One-Zero Sonny Franks realized he was trapped. There was no place to go except the river, and they’d be cut down before they were half way across it.
Hunkered down in a small, half-moon shaped washout, they had decent cover but couldn’t hold out very long. By the growing fire, Franks could tell more NVA were arriving by the minute. The enemy had them surrounded on three sides pinned against the water. The recon men set off a couple of claymore mines, and that helped out, but for how long?
Hughes tried the radio again.
Thirty miles away, the formation of five helicopters was returning to Duc Co after inserting the second team. Not one of the helicopters could hear RT Chisel’s anxious calls for help. But flying higher in his Cessna O-2 Sky master, their FAC (Forward Air Controller), USAF Major Charles Anonsen, thought there was something familiar about a fuzzy transmission; snapping off his other radios he turned up the volume and – yes, it sounded like RT Chisel, but the signal was so broken up that he had to fly west before he could make it out.
By now the NVA were thickly ringed around Chisel, peppering the bank above them with machine-gun and AK fire. Sonny Franks’ men narrowly beat back several assaults.
Anonsen’s plane was close enough for clear communications; by the time he’d located Chisel position, the two Green Hornet gunships and three troop ships were arriving too. There was one big problem, though; after the long flight they had barely enough fuel for anything but a quick pickup.
First they had to push the enemy back. Major Anonsen directed the two gunships to make runs around the team; Green Hornet rockets and minigun fire were returned by heavy fire from all sides. Orbiting overhead, Lieutenant Fleming saw the gunships knock out two 12.7mm heavy machine guns only 200 yards from RT Chisel, but the NVA filled the sky with such intense fire that one gunship shuddered, then its engine died, but its pilot, Captain Dave Miller, somehow landed the bird in a nearby clearing. As soon as Miller’s skids touched Cambodian soil a Green Hornet troopship swooped in for the four crew members then headed straight for Duc Co.
Sonny Franks’ men still held their horseshoe defense, but they were being pressed toward the river’s swift, wide waters. They tossed grenades and blew more claymores.
The Green Hornets had been overhead for two minutes and already one gunship had been shot down and another bird had flown away with the retrieved crewmen. Now a third helicopter, another troopship was below minimum fuel and had to depart. That left just two helicopters: Jim Fleming’s Huey and a gunship commanded by Major Leonard Gonzales. They, too, were dangerously low on fuel.
The firefight surged around the cornered team, but they doggedly held on thanks to their fire discipline and the cover of the riverbank. But six men couldn’t hold out much longer against this large NVA force.
Major Gonzales’ gunship rolled in and pickled rockets all around the team; he took heavy fire coming out, and Jim Fleming noticed him trailing smoke. Gonzales’ bird had been hit, though he thought the aircraft was flyable.
Out of station time and almost out of ammunition, Fleming had to go in after RT Chisel immediately or fly away. No one would have said a word if he had announced his fuel was simply too low. Leaving made more sense than attempting a pickup with a Huey flying on fumes. But young Fleming had inserted Chisel, they were “his” team, his responsibility.
He told the FAC that he was ready to go in. To mask his approach from ground fire, the FAC led Fleming’s Huey around a low hill, then talked him toward the river. Fleming banked so hard his rotor pointed almost vertically, then he skimmed full throttle just above the water, running a gauntlet of AK and machine gun fire while his co-pilot and door gunners shot at NVA and scanned for Chisel. He nosed the Huey into the bank where the team should have been, but just then the NVA hit RT Chisel in such strength that every recon man was busy shooting to run for the bird.
One-Zero Sonny Franks’ mind flashed back to a nightmarish vision of a Green Hornet crashed and afire. Only weeks earlier Franks and his team braced themselves as the Green Hornet they rode smashed through the tree tops, broke apart and burst into flames. The passengers and crew scrambled to safety except one young Air Force gunner whose arm was pinned to the burning wreckage; by the time his desperate crew mates began hacking at his arm with their puny survival knives it was too late. The 2,000 degree inferno pushed them away, and they watched, transfixed as a living man, their friend, was reduced to ashes. The vision tore at Sonny Franks’ guts.
Then another massive NVA assault almost rolled right across the tiny team and Lieutenant Fleming heard their radio operator scream, “They’ve got us! They’ve got us! Get out, get out!”
Fleming pulled pitch, backed away from the bank and began climbing out; not 50 feet away from one of the team’s claymore mines detonated and the whole helicopter crew saw an NVA’s body thrown in the air.
Fleming radioed, “What’s going on down there?”
“We blew them back,” Sergeant Hughes explained, “but we’re out of claymores and can’t hold out much longer.”
Orbiting at a safe altitude, Fleming took stock of the situation. Their backs against a river too wide to swim and too open to rush across, RT Chisel could last only another few minutes. There was maybe an hour of daylight left, not enough time to get more helicopters or refuel at Duc Co and return.
Fleming radioed the FAC, “We’ll give it one more try.”
The gunship pilot, Major Gonzales, said, “I’ll make one more pass over ‘em, give ‘em everything I’ve got, but then I have to get out of here.”
Fleming fell behind the gunship, Gonzales swung low, salvoed his remaining rockets and let those mini guns moan and groan until the barrels warped.
At first Fleming couldn’t find the team, yet he knew he was getting close because the volume of bullets ricocheting across the water increased.. Then the right door gunner shouted above this chopping machine gun’s roar, “There he is!” and Fleming saw one Montagnard leap into the river, sloshing from shore as four men jumped right behind him. Seeing all that fire, Franks thought surely the helicopter would get shot down or the pilot would pull out, but the Huey just came right over and hovered. Despite bursts of AK fire and exploding rockets, Fleming held that bird rock-steady in what the Air Force called “a feat of unbelievable flying skill.”
Fleming’s right gunner, Fred Cook, kept firing with one hand while pulling men aboard with the other. “Oh, I loved him.” One-Zero Franks said of Fleming. “Every one of ‘em there, there wasn’t none of them flinching.”
From the cockpit, Fleming saw more NVA trotting and crouching along the riverbank; he could do nothing but hold his aircraft stable and warn his door gunners. His left door gunner, J.J. Johnson, was giving them everything when his gun jammed.
Bullets shattered the Huey’s windshield and a bursting RPG antitank rocket raked the helicopter’s skin, but Fleming held that bird level and snug up to the riverbank. “He was just steady as a rock,” Sonny Franks said. At last five recon men were aboard, but the last man, Captain Randy Harrison, wasn’t there.
With bullets slapping the water all around his helicopter, Fleming finally told himself that was it, they had to get out before a slug hit the turbine and dropped his Huey right into the river. Even though he knew Randy Harrison best of all these men, he had to leave or they’d all be done for. Taking up the collective, he began pulling back from the river bank – and there was Harrison face above the bushes as he sprayed fire at an unseen NVA a few feet from behind him. The lanky captain ran four strides, jumped in the water, stroked twice, and Fred Cook managed to grab his hand just as Harrison snared a rope ladder. They lifted away, dragging the Green beret captain in the water, AKs firing and rockets bursting all around. Then several hands heaved Harrison aboard, and Fleming catapulted them above the trees.
Tens seconds later they were away and it was peaceful again.
Fleming and his co-pilot had been so focused that they hadn’t noticed their shattered windshield until air rushed in; the Huey’s fuel gauges read EMPTY when they landed at Duc Co.
After shutting down his engine, Fleming climbed out, took his helmet off, wiped the salty sweat from his eyes and looked up at the slowing rotor. Suddenly two big hands grabbed his head, and Randy Harrison shouted, “You sweet mother F__ker!” then stuck his tongue in the startled Green Hornet pilot’s ear.
A couple of months later, Fleming returned from R&R only to be told to keep his bags packed – he was being shipped home three months early. Even the swashbuckling gunship majors and lieutenant colonels gathered around to shake Fleming’s hand and congratulate this “mere’ troopship pilot. Fleming began to grow angry at the practical joke until the truth sank in and realized that everyone was serious. First Lieutenant James P. Fleming’s presence had been requested by the President of the United States. He’d been awarded the Medal of Honor and would be the SOG’s lone Air Force Medal of Honor recipient.
The Green Hornet gunship pilot, Major Leonard Gonzales, was awarded the Air Force Cross.
“They were great people,” says RT Chisel One-Zero Sonny Franks.
FLEMING, JAMES P.
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Air Force, 20th Special Operations Squadron
Place and date: Near Duc Co, Republic of Vietnam, 26 November 1968
Entered service at: Pullman, Washington
Born: 12 March 1943, Sedalia, Missouri
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Capt. Fleming (then 1st Lt.) distinguished himself as the Aircraft Commander of a UH-1F transport helicopter. Capt. Fleming went to the aid of a 6-man Special Forces long range reconnaissance patrol that was in danger of being overrun by a large, heavily armed hostile force. Despite the knowledge that 1 helicopter had been downed by intense hostile fire, Capt. Fleming descended, and balanced his helicopter on a river bank with the tail boom hanging over open water. The patrol could not penetrate to the landing site and he was forced to withdraw. Dangerously low on fuel, Capt. Fleming repeated his original landing maneuver. Disregarding his own safety, he remained in this exposed position. Hostile fire crashed through his windscreen as the patrol boarded his helicopter. Capt. Fleming made a successful takeoff through a barrage of hostile fire and recovered safely at a forward base. Capt. Fleming's profound concern for his fellow men, and at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.http://www.somf.org/moh/fleming_james_AF.htm
And let's get one thing straight. There's a big difference between a pilot and an aviator. One is a technician; the other is an artist in love with flight. — E. B. Jeppesen